5 in-demand medical specialties you may want to reconsider

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

Amid current and projected physician shortages, demand for doctors is high across the board. Yet a report from the health care search and consulting firm Merritt Hawkins offers some insight into which medical specialties are among the most sought after by the company’s clients.

“Think of it like the stock market,” said Travis Singleton, executive vice president at Merritt Hawkins. “We look at each specialty like stock. What’s hard? What’s easy? To us what would be easy is [a position] that we could fill relatively quickly.”

The AMA’s “Choosing a Specialty: An AMA Resource for Medical Students” presents a clear, approachable overview of specialties and subspecialties and can assist you in choosing a career path. And our “Shadow Me” Specialty Series offers firsthand physician insights of what life is like in a wide array of specialties and practice settings.

Here’s a look at the five most requested physician recruiting assignments Merritt Hawkins received in 2018.

Family medicine—497 requests. The demand for young talent in primary care specialties has been a consistent trend in physician recruitment in recent years. Family medicine is the specialty in which that demand has been most pronounced.

In fact, 2018 marked the 12th consecutive year in which Merritt Hawkins found that the most-requested recruiting assignment was for family physicians. Offering further evidence of the demand: The average starting salary for family physician recruiting assignments in 2018—$241,000—was the highest on record in that specialty.

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Psychiatry—243 requests. This year marks the third in a row that psychiatry was Merritt Hawkins’ second most-requested specialty in terms of recruiting assignments. Singleton believes that reflects a significant shortage of mental health professionals nationwide.

“More and more people are willing to talk about mental health, and we now know we’re short [in that specialty],” he said. “What surprised us is it shot up to the second most-requested specialty, and not only has it stayed there, it’s solidified its stance there. When you think about psychiatry and how it compares to family medicine, it’s roughly a fourth of the size. … Also we don’t know how short we are because we don’t know how many patients we aren’t getting to.”

Internal medicine—150 requests. The demand for internists, Singleton said, is driven by the fact that many physicians are leaving general internal medicine for other career opportunities.

“Everyone is stealing from internal medicine,” he said. “The market is stealing from them because we don’t have enough geriatricians and those types of specialties. Hospitalists are stealing from them because not only are more and more fellows going into hospitalist positions than traditional internal medicine but even the existing staff—those who were out practicing internal medicine—are now shifting over to hospital work and specialties. Those staying in the field of general internal medicine is at an all-time low.”

Radiology—132 requests. Radiology is making a comeback of sorts. In 1999, it was Merritt Hawkins’ top-requested specialty. Two years later, it wasn’t in the top 20. Singleton cited factors such as changes in training and payment, in addition to oversaturation, with its quick rise and fall.

“We knew imaging would come back because there’s virtually nothing in health care that can happen without an image anymore,” he said. “It’s come back sort of in two phases in that you still have your traditional radiologists and then we have this whole growing segment of teleradiologist, and we do as much teleradiology as we do regular radiology. I can tell you that for that position is just as hard to find as a normal radiologist and that wasn’t the case two or three years ago.”

Obstetrics and gynecology—118 requests. Merritt Hawkins’ report indicates that demand for ob-gyns is driven by birth rates as well as by population growth among females. The specialty saw an 8 percent growth in requested positions between the 2017 and 2018 reports. There’s a significant shortage in the specialty, with nearly half of all counties in the U.S. not having a single ob-gyn.

Demand by specialty and subspecialty is fairly dynamic, Singleton noted. So, picking your career path based on what is presently popular among recruiters may not be the best move.

“Don’t try to look at demand,” he said. The saying in the Merritt Hawkins office is, “There’s no such thing as an unemployed doctor,” Singleton added. “That is as true today as it has ever been and that’ll be true 10 years from now.”