Infectious diseases claim the lives of 17 million people around the world every year, and that number has risen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the average U.S. life expectancy dropped by a year and a half compared to 2019 – the largest decline since World War II. This decrease was even greater among historically marginalized populations.
The events of the past nearly two years have brought into sharp focus the importance of having trained ID practitioners to provide life-saving care, conduct critical research and educate the public about new and emerging ID threats. Yet the pipeline for training ID physicians lags behind other specialties, even as the global trend of ID outbreaks is on the rise.
Now is the time to educate and encourage the next generation of clinicians and researchers to choose infectious diseases as the target of their work.
The startling reality
As the global population grows, the number of ID professionals is forecasted to decrease, worsening existing gaps in access to ID specialty care.
According to the latest data:
- There was only one active ID physician per every 34,214 persons in the U.S. in 2019.
- Nearly 80% of U.S. counties have no ID specialists.
- 38% of ID programs failed to fill training slots from 2019 to 2020, and 19% weren’t able to fill any slots.
- There was an average of 0.8 applicants for every open position in ID programs nationwide in 2019 to 2020, following a decade-long trend.
While the number of first-year residents and fellows across all medical specialties rose by 11.7% between 2014 and 2019, the field of ID saw only a 7.4% increase.
One theory for the challenge recruiting medical students to the field is that the relatively lower compensation rates for ID practitioners compared to other specialties doesn’t line up with the mounting higher educational debt needed to achieve such a career.
Whatever the case may be, the statistics are startling. Nearly 208 million U.S. citizens (two-thirds of the population) live in counties with no or below-average ID physician coverage, meaning that many patients are left waiting or without access to specialty care that could greatly improve their outcomes. Growing evidence suggests that intervention by an ID physician is linked to lower mortality rates, shorter hospital stays, fewer readmissions and lower health care spending.
Many of the Americans who lack access to ID specialty care live in rural areas that are already medically underserved, leaving them less protected against imminent ID threats like COVID-19 and allowing diseases to spread more easily.
In addition to the lack of professionals entering the field, the current population of ID specialists is aging. It is estimated that more than 41% of active ID specialists in 2019 were over the age of 55, leaving questions about how the declining rate of these crucial physicians, researchers and public health experts will be able to sustain their life-saving efforts in an increasingly global community.
The evidence is clear: Without a robust, growing field of gifted ID experts, a health care system that will support us through the current – and next – pandemic cannot be maintained.
What is the IDSA Foundation doing to preserve the future of the ID specialty?
The IDSA Foundation is widening the path to impactful ID careers by investing in the recruitment, mentorship and career development of tomorrow’s ID leaders. Our goal is to ensure the most brilliant minds in medicine are brought to the ID profession, are nurtured in their careers and have the funding they need to conduct groundbreaking research that could lead to the development of new drugs and vaccines.
Through programs like our IDWeek Mentorship Program, ID Student Interest Groups Grant Program and Grants for Emerging Researchers/Clinicians Mentorship (G.E.R.M.) Program, the Foundation has:
- invested more than $1 million in ID research and development;
- funded more than 600 research opportunities for emerging practitioners; and
- fostered more than 1,050 early-career ID doctors through professional development and mentorship opportunities.
In 2021 alone, we’ve fostered relationships between 120 mentors and mentees representing 92 institutions across the country and solicited applications for student interest group grant funding from 36 institutions. We’ve also offered more than $2.3 million in funding to support ID innovations and research projects that allow investigators to strengthen their proposals for additional funding. And we’re just getting started.
Even as we emerge from the darkest days of COVID-19, science and history tell us the next pandemic is already on the way. By building a strong, diverse pipeline of brilliant ID practitioners to come, we’ll be better prepared to handle emergent ID threats and, ultimately, to save lives.
Ready to make a difference? Learn how you can get involved in our programs, or consider making a gift in celebration of the power of science. For a more comprehensive look at the Foundation’s work over the last two years, check out our latest annual report.