Early Pediatric Rheumatology Residency Exposure Key to Solving Workforce Shortages

Tara Haelle

April 22, 2021

The biggest factors that attract medical students to enter pediatric rheumatology are interest in disease pathology, the patient-physician relationship, and clinical exposure in residency, according to preliminary research shared at the annual scientific meeting of the Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatology Research Alliance.

A shortage in pediatric rheumatology already exists and is expected to worsen to 61% by 2030, noted the authors. About one-third (32%) of current pediatric rheumatologists will retire in the next decade, and less than two-thirds of fellowship slots have filled in the past 5 years.

Katherine Schultz, MD, a clinical fellow in the division of rheumatology at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center, led the study and said she was surprised that medical school exposure did not play a bigger role in attracting people to the field, but perhaps that's because too few people received that early exposure.

"If we had earlier exposure, maybe that wouldn't be definitive for saying, 'yes, I want to do this subspecialty of pediatric rheumatology,' but it would open the door, so when you hit residency, you can explore it further," Schultz said in an interview.

Dr Katherine Schultz

Schultz and her colleagues conducted a survey using the CARRA registry during September-December 2020. Respondents included pediatric rheumatology clinical fellows, early-career pediatric rheumatology faculty with less than 7 years practice experience, and mid- to late-career pediatric rheumatology faculty – those with more than 7 years of practice. They are currently in the process of analyzing additional qualitative data.

Of the 428 clinicians recruited to complete the study, 92 did so, for a response rate of 21%. Most respondents were female and non-Hispanic White. A total of 40% were clinical fellows, 41% were early-career faculty, and 18% were mid- to late-career faculty.

Positive Factors for Choosing the Field

More than 80% of respondents across all three experience levels cited disease pathology as a positive attribute of pediatric rheumatology, something that Schultz mentioned as well.

"The rewarding part of pediatric rheumatology is we take these complex diseases and we help give kids their life back," she said.

Nearly all the clinical fellows who responded said the patient-physician relationship was important, which early- and mid- and late-career faculty mentioned as well, although to a slightly lesser extent.

Other factors following closely behind disease pathology, patient-physician relationship, and clinical exposure in residency were having a role model in the field – cited by more than three-quarters of clinical fellows and early-career faculty – and having mentorship during residency.

"One of the strengths of our field and one of the things I love about pediatric rheumatology is our community is so close-knit, so kind, and so welcoming," Schultz said. "If students can have that exposure and they can see the kind of people who are in this field, that's our greatest power to draw people to our field."

Low Compensation Is a Deterrent

The least frequently mentioned positive factors were research opportunities and income. In fact, income was by far the most commonly cited negative attribute of pediatric rheumatology, reported by nearly half of clinical fellows and more than a quarter of early- and mid- and late-career faculty.

"We are one of the lowest paid specialties in pediatrics. We often make [income] comparable to or less than a general pediatrician," Schultz said. One reason for that is the difficulty of doing pediatric rheumatology in private practice. Most positions are at academic institutions, which will nearly always involve lower pay scales, she said. The field is also not a procedure-based one, which makes billing more difficult to quantify.

"If I spend an hour thinking about a patient's diagnosis and interpreting their labs, how do we quantify that?" she asked. "Our field is so cognitive that it makes it hard to bill in the same manner" as fields who bill more procedures, she said.

Colleen Correll, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatric rheumatology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, was also not surprised to see salary listed as the biggest deterrent to the field.

Dr Colleen Correll

"Unfortunately, compared to other specialties, our compensation is lower, and this can be a real barrier for people who have large medical student loans to repay and for those providing for their families," Correll said in an interview. She and Schultz both said that workforce advocacy groups are working on ways to compensate for that difference, including loan repayment programs.

The other specialties that respondents considered before choosing pediatric rheumatology varied by generation, but allergy and immunology and endocrinology were among the most cited by early-, mid-, and late-career faculty. Clinical fellows' responses were more evenly distributed across a range of different subspecialties.

Early Exposure Is Key

A large proportion of all three groups, including almost 90% of early-career faculty and clinical fellows, said they received exposure to pediatric rheumatology during residency. However, only a little more than two-thirds of clinical fellows had exposure to the field in medical school, and fewer than that reported medical school exposure among both faculty groups.

Both Correll and Schultz said that early exposure to pediatric rheumatology was key to bringing more people into the workforce.

"I believe that once a medical student or resident has an opportunity to work with a pediatric rheumatologist, they are able to see the many reasons for which this is a great career choice," Correll said. "Pediatric rheumatologists are seen as positive role models. We love what we do, we have great patient-physician relationships, and we see interesting disease pathophysiology on a regular basis."

Although earlier exposure to the field is primarily an institutional issue, clinicians can play a role as well.

"For the individual practitioners, the biggest way they can make an impact is to make themselves visible," Schultz said. Although the subspecialty is stretched thin, she encouraged pediatric rheumatologists to do med school and resident lectures, volunteer to do feedback sessions, offer residents opportunities to rotate with them, and generally make themselves more visible. "It's going to take the community to really make the change we need," she said.

She and Correll both cited the American College of Rheumatology and CARRA pediatric residency programs as helpful, but there's more to do. Other ways to increase exposure to the field include creating medical student rotations in pediatric rheumatology, working on case reports or small research projects with new learners, and requesting that pediatric rheumatology be a mandatory rotation in pediatrics training, Correll said.

"We absolutely have a responsibility to promote our field because if we don't, the workforce supply issue will continue to worsen," Correll said. "We already have a workforce shortage, and models show this shortage will only worsen if we don't improve recruitment into the field, especially with many pediatric rheumatologists coming up on retirement. Once we are able to expose medical students and residents to the field, I think they easily see our passion and our love for the field, and it's easy to recruit them."

The research was funded by CARRA, which receives funding from the Arthritis Foundation. Schultz and Correll had no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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