In a state that’s experiencing rapid growth, the Tennessee Rheumatology Society (TRS) is keeping pace. A report from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, shows the state could grow by nearly 1 million people over the next 20 years, with the population reaching 7.87 million by 2040.1
Three years ago, the TRS Board of Directors voted to open its membership to physician assistants (PAs), nurse practitioners (NPs) and other rheumatology providers, reflecting the changing demographics of the medical field while increasing its membership. Today, TRS boasts approximately 105 members from across the state.
“Eighty percent of our members are rheumatologists, but we also welcome residents, fellows and other rheumatology professionals to join TRS,” says TRS President Brett Smith, DO, a rheumatologist with Tennessee Direct Rheumatology, Knoxville.
Based in a state with two rheumatology fellowship programs—at the University of Tennessee and at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center—TRS is committed to supporting both current rheumatologists and future leaders.
“TRS provides funding to the fellowship programs at both universities to encourage fellows to attend our annual conference as well as the ACR’s annual meeting [ACR Convergence],” Dr. Smith says.
In addition to providing fellows with access to continuing education in rheumatology and the chance to meet their colleagues, Dr. Smith says he hopes TRS leads some fellows to establish a practice in Tennessee.
“We probably retain about 50% of the students who go through our state’s fellowship programs,” Dr. Smith says.
Increasing the number of both primary care physicians and specialists in Tennessee is an issue being addressed at the state level. According to the 2021 State Physician Workforce Report issued by the Association of American Medical Colleges, Tennessee has 17,687 active physicians, or 253.6 per 100,000 residents, the 22nd fewest in the U.S.2
In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee made history by signing a bill that makes Tennessee the first state in the country to remove redundant medical residency requirements for international doctors. The legislation aims to help Tennessee attract qualified physicians from around the world to ensure the state has enough doctors.
Improving Access to Care
Dr. Smith says that, like many states, Tennessee is experiencing a shortage of physician specialists and it’s not uncommon for patients to have a three- to six-month wait or to drive one to two hours across the state for a rheumatology appointment.
With rheumatologists in Tennessee primarily practicing in large cities, such as Nashville and Memphis, some practitioners in outlying cities, including Dr. Smith, treat both adults and children with rheumatic diseases.