According to the Infectious Disease Society of America, “Infectious diseases rank as the second leading cause of death, over half of which are children under the age of 5. Infectious diseases are the third leading cause of death in the United States – 170,000 each year – a figure that has nearly doubled since the early 1980s.”
From studying and understanding HIV/AIDS to researching antibiotic resistance, an infectious disease specialist has the opportunity to change the lives of thousands of people with their work by focusing on diseases that are uncommon and developing treatments to stop the spread of these diseases. And for those that choose to take on the challenging path of learning how to become an infection disease specialist, the rewards can be much more than simply earning a paycheck.
What is an Infectious Disease Specialist?
Infectious disease specialists focus on diseases that are more rare than the common cold or flu virus. Most family practice doctors can diagnose and treat common diseases people experience. In the cases where expert knowledge is needed, an infectious disease specialist may need to investigate the disease, do research, identify the symptoms and causes of the disease, and make recommendations for both treatment and to stop the spread of the disease to other individuals. In order to do this work they may perform some of the following tasks:
In addition to working directly with patients, Infectious Disease Specialists can be involved in investigations and research. When a particular disease appears more often in a certain area or with a certain demographic, they may be called on for their expertise as well as request information from other medical sub-specialties.
They may work alongside public health officials or the Center for Disease Control, depending on their role in the community. In order to report and understand disease prevalence, breakthroughs in disease prevention or treatment, and other developments that may affect their patient population infectious disease specialists may be involved in contributing to or obtaining information from national databases that track disease occurrence.
Those interested in becoming an infectious disease specialist are likely motivated by their ability to find answers and diagnose accurately. This leads to great relationships with patients, which can also be a very rewarding aspect of the job.
Educational Requirements for Becoming an Infectious Disease Specialist
The minimum requirement for becoming an infectious disease specialist is a doctorate degree. The complete path is detailed below including testing, residency, fellowship and certifications.
Step-by-step Educational Path to Becoming an Infectious Disease Specialist
A bachelor’s degree is the first step in the educational path of an infectious disease specialist. Studies at the undergraduate level should include various science courses with a lab element in order to meet the pre-requisites for medical school and provide the basic information necessary for taking the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT.
The MCAT is usually taken the junior year of college. The score one receives on this test will be one of the determining factors of their entry into medical school.
While it is not necessary to have a specific major at this level to enter medical school or to become an infectious disease specialist, many students choose a science major like biology because it is most likely to include the courses that will be needed to continue pursuing medical education. Students should talk to a medical school adviser to ensure they have a complete understanding of what courses and knowledge are required. This will help them plan for their courses over their three to four years of undergraduate education.
After their junior year of undergraduate and passing the MCAT, or after graduating with a bachelor’s degree and passing the MCAT, students can seek acceptance into medical school. Medical school admissions are very competitive. Students will need to show a strong academic standing with a high GPA, especially in the sciences; a strong MCAT score that further proves their knowledge of scientific principles and shows critical thinking skills; and submit letters of references highlighting the students character, work ethic, and promise as a medical school student.
Extra-curricular activities and leadership skills can also help strengthen an application. For this reason, it can be beneficial for students to seek experience in their chosen field prior to medical school. Volunteering at a hospital or getting other direct patient experience can help both in acceptance and confidence as the student continues their educational journey in medicine.
Medical school consists of four years of study.
Infectious disease specialists complete a three- year internal medicine residency after medical school. The internal medicine residency provides patient care experience, in a real setting, where the resident is supervised by an experienced doctor and teacher. The residency also provides the opportunity to be involved in research projects and take on leadership roles. Residents may experience inpatient and outpatient environments, will likely work a variety of schedules and come in contact with a large range of patient types and needs.
Residency is a very challenging aspect of becoming a doctor in the United States and can be one of the most stressful times of a student’s education. It is important that during this time students are able to focus on their studies and job responsibilities, connect with potential mentors and find their niche in medicine in order to move forward in a sub-specialty that will be a rewarding career and good fit for the individual.
After residency, a two to three year fellowship is required. This fellowship will be the first time students are able to focus on infectious disease entirely. The previous years of education and training will have provided a foundation for understanding the specifics of infectious disease and specializing in the field. The fellowship will provide the environment and information necessary for students to test and become board certified in infectious disease, the culmination of the many years of education they have completed.
In order to become a doctor and a board certified infectious disease physician, there are a number of tests that must be taken and passed. Testing starts with the MCAT, usually taken the junior year of undergraduate studies, which tests a student’s basic scientific knowledge, critical thinking and problem solving skills. The score received on the MCAT is am important indicator for medical school acceptance and the test should not be taken lightly, though a student can retest if they desire to do so.
Throughout medical school and residency students must test in order to move on to the next stage of education and training. Students will take various parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) throughout their education.
Step one tests a students understanding and application of science concepts and basic medical practice. According to the USMLE website, “Step 1 ensures mastery of not only the sciences that provide a foundation for the safe and competent practice of medicine in the present, but also the scientific principles required for maintenance of competence through lifelong learning.”
Step two focuses on medical knowledge, skills and clinical science. Passing this step in the exam shows the student’s ability to provide basic patient care and that they have foundation necessary for a “safe and competent practice of medicine.”
Step three of the USMLE is the test that shows that students are ready to perform without supervision. This is the final test that offers students licensure and is focused on generalized medical care. It is the final test before specialization and board certification.
Board certification tests conclude fellowship experience in the subspecialty of the physician’s choice. These tests are more specialized than the USMLE tests which are focused on broad knowledge and experience.
Every state has its own licensure requirements. Physicians must access the requirements for the state they are seeking to practice in. Licensure may include additional testing as well as submission of experience, test scores, graduation information and other documents.
Infectious disease specialists have many options when it comes to work environment. Each of the environments available has an affect on the amount of money earned, number of patients seen and administrative duties required by the job.
Because infectious disease specialists can see patients in a variety of settings, patient interaction and patient care settings can vary. About 28% of infectious disease physicians report that they rarely go to the hospital to see patients while another 34% report that they spend more than 25 hours per week at the hospital.[i] This is indicative of the type of patient care and practice the infectious disease specialist is involved in.
The majority of infectious disease specialists, 50%, see patients fewer than 40 hours per week. An additional 28% see patients between 41 and 50 hours per week.[ii] This works out to an average of 25 to 49 patients per week as reported by 27% of infectious disease physicians. The normal patient visit lasts between 13 and 16 minutes, which is higher than a number of specialties. This is in part due to the nature of the specialty when it comes to patient care. Infectious disease physicians must be thorough when it comes to taking medical histories, testing and diagnosis as well as education and recommendations for those that they see.
Another aspect of the job for an infectious disease specialist is administrative work. More than many other specialties, 34% of infectious disease physicians spend 10 to 14 hours a week on paperwork with an additional 35% reporting that they spend more than 15 hours per week on paperwork and other administrative activities.
According to the Medscape Infectious Disease Physician Compensation Report, the mean income of an infectious disease specialist is $170,000. However, the range varies with 27% of infectious disease specialists making over $250,000 and another 23% making under $125,000.[iii] The pay gap between male and female infectious disease physicians is only 3%, much lower than the average of 30% for all medical specialties.
The highest compensation region in the United States for infectious disease specialists is the Northwest, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The average compensation in this area is $300,000. The lowest compensation appears in the South Central United States, which includes Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas where the average compensation is less than half of the Northwest region at $137,000.
The highest paid work setting is a solo practice office setting where the physician is the owner of the practice. The lowest paid work setting is an outpatient clinic. A brief break down of pay by work setting and situation looks like this:
Healthcare Organization: $134,000
Multispecialty group practice: $223,000
Single-specialty group practice: $188,000
Solo practice: $225,000
Outpatient Clinic: $132,000
Independent Contractor: $175,000
Owner, solo practice: $259,000
Taking the initiative to become an Infectious Disease Specialist requires dedication, patience and the unique ability to infuse scientific discovery with creative problem solving skills. It's a profession that comes naturally to some people – while others have to work hard at developing the required skill set.