Sunday, May 17, 2009

Doctor Shortage

People have been reporting about this for quite a while, but a friend just recently forwarded me this NY Times article about how there will be a severe shortage in doctors in the future, especially in the primary care field. It seems many people, including the current Obama administration are becoming increasingly worried about this problem. While some steps are being taken to try and delay this crisis, there are many many roadblocks.

Of the ideas that have been proposed or already instituted to try and solve this problem, one includes increasing the sizes and numbers of medical schools. Medical schools may have to admit more students that don't have science backgrounds - while some worry that this may decrease the quality of medical students and eventual doctors, I don't think this is a problem and may even be of benefit. Medical schools already admit plenty of students with non-scientific backgrounds and as long as they can build up a significant fund of knowledge either in medical school or in a year of study before entering, I think it's not a problem. In fact, it may even build diversity and bring new ideas and perspectives to the table, which is definitely a good thing.

Another idea is to increase the use of non-MD sources of health care, including nurses and other health care professionals, which I think is a great idea. However, there is also a nation-wide shortage of nurses, so this avenue may be limited as well. Finally, it has been suggested that we use more minority as well as international doctors as there are many MDs from other countries who would like to practice in the U.S. Obviously this presents many problems as training in other countries can be vastly different than training in the U.S. and currently, depending on the country they come from, international doctors often have to retake licensing exams, as well as complete full residencies (after having already completed residencies or full training programs in another country) in the U.S. This is a huge deterrent for MDs coming from other countries to try and become MDs in the U.S. - I don't know how many international MDs I know who have instead become lab technicians or Ph.D. students or post doctoral students because the requirements for them to practice medicine in the U.S. are so overwhelming. However, I don't have a great solution for this as I do believe the training is different from country to country and that international MDs should practice in the custom of U.S. training, for legal purposes as well as medical.

Despite these efforts, I see a lot of hurdles for which there are no easy answers or solutions. One is that even though medical schools may be increasing their enrollment, there are a limited number of residency training spots available. These are being increased as well, but they cannot be increased as easily or at the same rate as medical school spots. Residencies are much more complex to set up, and must go through a thorough accreditation process every couple of years, which is not only cumbersome, but can be difficult to arrange and maintain.

Moreover, there is heavy competition for competent people by other professions, the major competitors being business and law. Now, with the economy being the way it is, business has been less attractive the last few years, and perhaps the medical pathway is getting a boost from the decrease in business school applicants or business jobs. However, law and business careers can be much more attractive than medical careers - the training is much shorter. School takes half as long, and after school you start earning a relatively good salary right away whereas in medical school, it can take 4-6 years, with 3-5 year of low-paying residency afterwards, sometimes followed by 1-2 years of low-paying fellowship. Once you finally get out of all this training, doctors (especially primary care) often still make lower salaries than lawyers and businessmen, and have to contend with other headaches and costs associated with malpractice insurance, insurance paperwork and red tape, etc. Until there is good health care reform, or salaries become more equalized (either doctors' salaries have to come up or other salaries should be lowered - probably the latter is better for various reasons), there's not much that can be done about this problem.

Finally, even with the increase in medical school admissions and residency spots, many people are still attracted to practicing in medical specialties rather than primary care, in which the doctor shortage is the most severe. Again, this likely is due to a salary differential as primary care doctors make much less than doctors in medical specialties. As with competition with business and law degress, not much can be done about this problem until the salaries equalize - in this case, I think primary care doctors should be valued more highly and their salaries increased.

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