Specialty Choice in Health Professions
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As the body of health care knowledge expands, it becomes difficult for one person to know everything about his or her field. Physicians, physician assistants, pharmacists, nurses, and other health professionals may specialize in a particular area of patient care, becoming "specialists" in the process. Specialists develop expertise on a particular age group, body system, or type of care and use that knowledge to provide better patient care for health issues related to their specialty. Some become certified in their specialty by completing further training and/or passing an exam to show that they meet a certain level of knowledge or skill as determined by a certification board.
The supply of professionals in a specific specialty or subspecialty is very important. For example, having enough physicians in radiation oncology helps ensure that cancer care is accessible. A sufficient supply of physicians who specialize in primary care may also decrease medical costs, reduce patient wait-times, and enable more people to access general care. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can alleviate physician shortages by specializing in a number of the same areas as physicians.
Workforce shortages within a particular specialty can have negative effects on health care accessibility and quality. As such, specialty choice is a subject with critical importance. Health professionals may choose a specialty for a number of reasons, including: personal interest, salary, lifestyle, work hours, malpractice concerns, prestige, mentors, exposure to the specialty, student debt load, work setting, practice structure, and demographics. Higher education organizations and professional associations create educational requirements or elective programs that expose students to various specialties and offer scholarships and other incentives for those who specialize in certain areas. Efforts to influence specialty choice one way or another are common subjects of health workforce-related legislation at both the state and federal levels.
Page last updated January 8, 2013