For patients with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis (MS) and other brain disorders, finding a specialist to treat their condition may be increasingly difficult, according to a new study.
Experts in the field of medicine that focuses on the brain and nervous system revealed that there is a shortage of neurologists in the United States as medical students and residents are choosing other more lucrative specialties. The study authors noted that patients with brain disorders who do find a neurologist would have to wait even longer to be treated.
"With the rapidly rising rates of brain diseases such as dementia and stroke at the same time as the number of U.S. medical residents choosing neurology over other specialties is clearly declining, the U.S. could face a crisis," explained study author Dr. Thomas Vidic, with Elkhart Clinic in Elkhart, Ind.
"Our study found that long wait times for patients to see a neurologist and difficulty finding neurologists to fill vacant positions are adding to the current national shortfall," Vidic, who is also a fellow with the American Academy of Neurology, said in an academy news release. "In addition, the demand for neurologists is expected to grow as people gain coverage through health care reform."
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The study found that demand for neurologists would outpace supply over the next 12 years. Right now, 11 percent more neurologists are needed to meet patient demands. That number is expected to hit 19 percent by 2025. By that time, the researchers project the number of neurologists will increase to 18,060 as demand for this type of specialist surges to 21,440.
As a result, patients could be waiting even longer to get an appointment with a U.S. neurologist, the study findings indicate. Previous studies have shown new patients waited an average of 35 business days to see a neurologist last year.
The fact that the current Medicare payment system undervalues one-on-one evaluations by neurologists has led to the shortage of these specialists in the United States, the authors stated in the news release. They suggested that without fair reimbursement for neurological care, medical students and residents burdened by education debt will pursue more lucrative specialties.
This trend is particularly worrisome because brain diseases are becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States, the experts pointed out, with one in six Americans now currently affected by a neurological condition.
The study was published online April 17 in Neurology, just days before 150 neurologists were expected to head to Capitol Hill. The goal of the visit, scheduled for April 23, is to urge Congress to protect patients' access to neurologists through fair reimbursement for neurological care.
"We want Congress to act now to help alleviate this shortage at a time when baby boomers are aging and the number of people with Alzheimer's disease is expected to triple by 2050," American Academy of Neurology president, Dr. Timothy Pedley, said in the news release.
"Neurologists are the physicians best suited to care for the one in six people currently affected by neurological disease," Pedley explained. "It is therefore vital that they have access to neurologists who are specially trained in treating brain diseases."