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Fewer doctors are going into pediatrics. That's leaving a huge gap in hospitals

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Last month, the Association of American Medical Colleges said that the U.S. will face a doctor shortage of up to 86,000 physicians by 2036. That shortage also extends to pediatrics, and this year's match week, which is when medical graduates are paired with residency programs, doesn't seem to bode well. According to a new piece in the health publication STAT News, close to 30% of pediatric residency programs did not fill their positions. To understand the reasons why, we turn to Dr. Jeanine Ronan. She's the program director of the pediatrics residency program for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Thank you for being with us.

JEANINE RONAN: Oh, you're welcome.

RASCOE: So the STAT article also says that year over year, the total number of grads applying to pediatrics went down by 6%. Is that a lot?

RONAN: Yeah. So it's really interesting. So the number of programs and the number of positions available in pediatrics has steadily increased over the last 10 years, but the number of U.S.-trained MD seniors going into pediatrics has slowly decreased.

RASCOE: And why do you think that's happening?

RONAN: I think it's probably multifactorial. And I think we don't entirely completely understand it, quite frankly. I think what people get to see in pediatrics from a medical student perspective is a little bit different. It's definitely not the focus of the preclinical training you receive before you go on to the clerkships and get a chance to take care of patients clinically. Usually some of the unique diseases that we see in pediatrics, which actually, to me are some of the really exciting aspects, the medical students don't get as introduced to those as early on. I also think, post the pandemic, pediatrics has really had a change in the types of problems we're seeing and the types of patients that are getting admitted to the hospital. And so I think that has been a little bit of a challenge. And I think some people's experience in pediatrics, as a medical student, has also changed a little bit. And then I think I'd be remiss if we didn't comment a little bit on the economic compensation that happens. Pediatrics in general is definitely not compensated as highly as our medicine colleagues who are taking care of adults. You know, if you go into pediatrics, especially if you pursue additional training in a pediatric subspecialty, something like endocrinology or infectious diseases, you will be some of the lowest-paid physicians. So despite six years of training after medical school, you really will not be making nearly as much money as our medicine colleagues or as our surgical colleagues.

RASCOE: I wanted to ask you, why did you choose your field? Why did you choose pediatrics?

RONAN: I think there's nothing better than being able to help a child and their family. And I also think kids just are amazing. And they want to feel well. They want to bounce back, right? So as soon as they have a little bit of feeling better, they are excited and smiling and really engaged. And they say like the most enjoyable things, which is really what honestly gives me joy to my work.

RASCOE: Well, what happens if more people don't find their way into pediatrics like you did?

RONAN: Well, I think unfortunately the care of children and the access to care is really what's going to suffer. You know, we're focused right now on general pediatrics training for residency. But if you look at trends in specialty training for pediatrics, like some of the pediatric subspecialty fields like infectious diseases and endocrinology and developmental and behavioral pediatrics, there's multiple programs that go unfilled, and there's lots of positions available in those particular subspecialties and fields throughout the country.

RASCOE: That's Dr. Jeanine Ronan. She's the program director of the pediatrics residency program for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Thank you so much for joining us.

RONAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.