Without our needing to think about it, our bodies know when to breathe, when the heart should beat, when we are hungry and when we need sleep. The most essential functions of life are governed by chemical messengers called hormones, which act as the body’s traffic cops and issue orders to nearly every cell. Hormones control an unborn baby’s development in the womb, a growing teen’s journey through puberty and the aging process during our golden years.

Your endocrine system

But what happens when these crucial signals malfunction? The epidemic diseases of the 21st century — diabetes, obesity and breast, prostate and other cancers — all involve hormones and the glands that produce them. Together, these glands make up the endocrine system.

Specially-trained physicians and scientists called endocrinologists act as medical detectives who diagnose diseases that affect the endocrine system and discover life-saving treatments.

Shortage of specialists

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have thyroid disorders, osteoporosis, infertility, growth problems and other hormone conditions count on expert endocrinologists to provide the care they need today and the cures of tomorrow. Individuals dealing with common conditions like diabetes can turn to primary care providers for diagnosis and treatment. In cases in which a diagnosis is elusive or symptoms like high blood sugar continue to be problematic, however, a specialist is needed.

“A 2014 report found there was a nationwide shortage of 1,500 endocrinologists to treat adult patients. The shortage is likely to worsen as more baby boomers retire.”

In the years to come, the demand for health care threatens to outpace the supply of trained endocrinologists. A 2014 report found there was a nationwide shortage of 1,500 endocrinologists to treat adult patients. The shortage is likely to worsen as more baby boomers retire. To ensure patients do not face long waits and other challenges accessing care, more trained endocrinologists are required to fill the gap.

In the lab                     

Along with trained physicians, research is needed to identify new treatments for endocrine conditions. But the continuing resolution Congress used to fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through April reduced the amount of money available for research grants. The Special Diabetes Program supporting Type 1 diabetes research at the NIH will expire this fall, if Congress does not renew it. Without sufficient funding, many young scientists won’t be able to pursue promising ideas that could result in breakthroughs.

Patients, health care providers and policymakers can work together to foster scientific advances and apply new discoveries to the treatment of millions of Americans who have these conditions.