Researchers have been warning for some time that the number of surgeons entering the workforce isn’t keeping pace with a growing population and expanding medical need. A new study suggests the problem is more dramatic than originally thought.
The study indicates there will be 7,047 fewer surgeons than the population requires by 2050, according to a report in Reuters.
The measure is based on the standard of 7.5 general surgeons as the adequate number of practitioners to handle the needs of every 100,000 individuals. Although there is a rising rate of people pursuing surgery as a career, overall population growth is at an even faster clip. And researchers also anticipate medical advances and an aging citizenry will lead to higher demand for surgery.
“Patients 65 years and older are more likely to need general surgery services, and as that segment of the population increases, there will be a corresponding increase in the demands for general surgeons,” E. Christopher Ellison, MD, lead author on the study and general surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Reuters.
Ellison noted the likely impacts of older patients and greater need weren’t factored into the study — which is published in Surgery — so there’s a strong possibility that the surgeon shortage will be more dire than they currently predict.
The healthcare community is aware of this growing personnel shortage, leading to creative solutions. The recent trend of medical schools offering free tuition is one example.
As with many dilemmas in U.S. healthcare, rural communities are likely to feel the greatest strain. Surgeons are already disinclined to set up practices in more remote communities where facilities may be outdated and a more limited array of patients are coming through the doors. But when surgery is required, having few physicians on hand in the rural hospitals is a major hardship.
“We need to identify better ways to provide surgical care in regions where that care is difficult to obtain, either because the distance that needs to be traveled is prohibitive or because the existing surgical care in the region isn’t high quality,” Anupam Jena, MD, PhD, a Harvard Medical School researcher on healthcare policy, tells Reuters. “These projections shed some light on how big an issue this problem is likely to be in the next 30 years.”