What an Infectious Disease Doctor Is and How to Become One

The devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the enormous harm that a lethal infectious disease can cause. When a contagious and dangerous illness spreads, damage is done not only to individuals who are infected with the illness but also to the “worried well” who live in fear of catching the illness.

The job of an infectious disease doctor is to fight against these types of plagues. He or she works to heal people who are sick because of an infection. Here is a guide on what it means to be an infectious disease doctor, and how and why someone might pursue this career path.

What an Infectious Disease Doctor Is and Does

Infectious disease medicine is a medical specialty that focuses on preventing and addressing infections.

Dr. Tim Schacker, an infectious disease doctor who focuses on HIV medicine and vice dean for research with the University of Minnesota Medical School, explains that infectious disease is a unique area of medicine.

“It’s a specialty that’s really a little bit different than the others,” he says, adding that infectious disease doctors don’t focus on performing particular procedures like joint injections and don’t exclusively concentrate on a particular part of the body.

“Every organ in the body can get infected,” Schacker explains. “Each organ gets infected with different kinds of organisms and requires different treatments.”

Infections disease doctors often concentrate on bacterial diseases like tuberculosis, viral conditions like HIV, parasites like tapeworms or tropical illnesses like malaria. Alternatively, someone in this field could treat a wide range of infectious diseases without focusing on a particular kind.

[Read: What Medical School Hopefuls Should Know About Types of Doctors.]

This type of medical specialist may also conduct scientific research on infections that are common and harmful to increase understanding of these diseases. The knowledge gained typically has clinical applications, meaning that doctors can use the information to improve their performance.

Physician scientists in this field who are particularly innovative and accomplished sometimes discover treatments or cures for serious infectious diseases that would be fatal if left untreated. For example, the creation of antiretroviral drugs for HIV and AIDS has tremendously extended the lifespans of people with either condition. Such scientific breakthroughs allow people who are diagnosed with a disease that was previously regarded as a death sentence to lead fulfilling lives despite their diagnosis.

Infectious disease doctors also play a role in the creation of vaccines that guard against disease and stop infection outbreaks. Jonas Salk, the virologist who invented the polio vaccine, is one example of an infectious disease physician who introduced a life-saving vaccine. Infectious disease doctors are currently attempting to develop a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19, the disease called by the novel coronavirus.

[Read: How Coronavirus Could Affect Medical School Admissions.]

Dr. Daniel Griffin — chief of infectious disease for ProHEALTH Care, a New York health care provider, and a clinical instructor of medicine at Columbia University in New York City — says a common misconception about infectious disease medicine is that it involves only HIV.

However, this type of medicine encompasses many types of contagious diseases, including viruses and parasitic infections, says Griffin, president of Parasites Without Borders, a coalition of doctors committed to raising awareness of parasitic diseases. Griffin, who is regularly featured on the podcasts “This Week in Virology” and “This Week in Parasitism,” has treated a wide range of infectious diseases and has treated COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.

Griffin says some people mistakenly believe that all infectious disease physicians work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. Infectious disease doctors don’t necessarily work for government agencies and often work in the private sector, he emphasizes, and their work is “anything but routine.”

“We’re often called in when something is complicated (or) something is a mystery that needs to be solved,” Griffin says.

What It Takes to Enter the Infectious Disease Field

Experts on infectious disease medicine say that the profession is ideal for individuals who enjoy solving puzzles, since it tends to be complex. The career is also suitable for individuals who are concerned about vulnerable populations, such as people living in poverty, since those individuals tend to be disproportionately affected by infectious disease outbreaks.

Griffin says a desire to care for “neglected populations” was part of what led him to choose the infectious disease medical specialty.

Infectious disease doctors note that their profession requires significant training, including medical school, some type of medical residency — usually in either internal medicine or pediatric medicine — plus an infectious disease medical fellowship. Aspiring infectious disease doctors should also aim for a passing score on an infectious medicine board certification exam, experts say.

“That would be the career path to be a basic infectious disease physician, but some of us like myself have gone on for much more education,” says Griffin, who received two years of training in tropical medicine and also obtained a Ph.D. degree in immunology. “For some of us the training doesn’t end with a two-year fellowship in infectious disease. It can go on for several more years if we have a particular interest in global health, tropical medicine or research aspects of infectious disease.”

[Read: Reasons to Study Epidemiology and How to Become an Epidemiologist.]

Dr. David Flick, a family physician and director of residency advising for the MedSchoolCoach academic consulting firm, says that when he counsels infectious disease fellowship applicants he urges them to demonstrate their clinical skills and research prowess. Both skill sets are valuable in the infectious disease field, he says.

“The people that are drawn to infectious disease are naturally curious people,” Flick says, adding that people in this field need to be “comfortable with the unknown” since the medical specialty is rapidly evolving. Because viruses mutate, knowledge about how they behave may become outdated, so it’s important for a doctor in this specialty to remain on the cutting edge of what science reveals, Flick explains.

“They’re the people who you go to when you can’t figure out what’s wrong with your patient, so they’re kind of like the last line of defense or the ultimate medical detective,” he says.

Job Prospects for Infectious Disease Doctors

The average annual compensation among U.S. infectious disease doctors as of February 2020 was $246,000, according to the 2020 Medscape Physician Compensation Report. That is more than $200,000 less than the average annual earnings for any of the three most lucrative medical specialties: orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery and otolaryngology, a technical term for ear, nose and throat medicine.

However, experts say there is a pressing need for more infectious disease physicians. The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, recently published an article warning of a severe current shortage of infectious disease physicians and noting that it is particularly problematic given the global coronavirus pandemic.

Schacker suggests that infectious disease doctors play a critical role in the health care system and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, noting that this is the fourth pandemic he has experienced during his medical career.

“We have an explosion of antibiotic-resistant infections in this country and the world,” he says, adding that there are “emerging infections” that originate in animals and are transmitted to people. “So I think it’s always going to be a field that’s in demand, and I think it’s frankly one of the more interesting fields of medicine.”

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What an Infectious Disease Doctor Is and How to Become One originally appeared on usnews.com

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