Hello patient advocates. Dr. Worthing here, chair of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Government Affairs Committee.

Have you noticed a lack of rheumatologists in your area? If so, you are not alone – there’s an ongoing shortage of rheumatologists across the country, especially in rural areas.

According to the American College of Rheumatology’s most recent workforce study, demand for adult rheumatology care exceeded supply by 36 percent in 2015 –  and the gap is only expected to grow wider in the future. By 2025, about 3,800 additional rheumatologists will be needed to meet patient demand.

This is particularly alarming when you consider the most recent arthritis prevalence report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows that the number of Americans living with arthritis is at an all-time high. Currently, 1 in 4 Americans live with some form of arthritis, and by 2040, that number will reach 79 million.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that can be done to reverse these alarming trends and grow the rheumatology workforce in the process. The ACR is working hard to educate Congress about this ongoing problem and offer solutions that can improve access to care for people living with rheumatic diseases across the country.

For example, Congress can:

  • Urge the Trump administration to reinstate the H-1B visa expedited review process to allow more international physicians to work in the United States. Almost half of rheumatology fellowships are filled by international medical school graduates, yet hospitals have difficulty recruiting rheumatologists from abroad because of the Administration’s recent suspension of expedited H-1B visa reviews.
  • Increase the number of Graduate Medical Education (GME) residency and training slots for medical school graduates. These government-funded positions are capped at a certain number without any good reason, and as a result there are fewer opportunities to educate and train rheumatologists.
  • Ensure that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which encourages individuals to work in public service by forgiving a portion of their student loan debt, remains viable for medical graduates pursuing rheumatology. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical student debt averages $180,000 per student – creating yet another barrier for medical students entering the workforce.

Recently, Congress took an important first step in addressing the doctor shortage. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) introduced the Conrad State 30 & Physician Access Act. This bill would allow international doctors to remain in the U.S. after finishing their residency if they agree to practice in rural or underserved communities. If you are on social media, please consider taking a moment to thank them for introducing this important bill.  We have included their Twitter handles below to make it easy.

We Want to Hear from You

One last request… Next month, a group of ACR advocates will be heading to Washington, D.C. to speak with lawmakers about ways to address the rheumatology workforce shortage, and we could use your help! Congressional leaders will be more compelled to act if they see and hear how their constituents are personally impacted by this issue.  If you have had trouble finding or seeing a rheumatologist in your area (for example, maybe you have experienced long wait times between appointments or you had to make special travel arrangements or travel across state lines to receive specialized care), it is important for Congressional leaders to hear how this experience has affected you.

If you’re willing to tell your story, I encourage you to visit our Legislative Advocacy Center and send an email to your lawmakers. This is an important way for us to make sure that policymakers are aware of how these issues impact Americans across the country! Send an email now >

We appreciate you taking the time to share these important stories, and I look forward to advocating on your behalf in May!

Dr. Angus Worthing