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Is there a doctor in the house?


As early as next year, there may not be enough surgeons in U.S. hospitals to treat the critically injured or chronically ill, as a study by Ohio State University, Columbus, suggests that the number of available general surgeons, who often perform life-saving operations on patients in emergency rooms, will not keep up with public demand. As the population continues to grow, there will be a shortage of 1,300 general surgeons in 2010. That shortage will worsen each decade, reaching a deficit of 6,000 by 2050.

That means people will have to wait longer for emergency treatment and for elective general surgery, points out Thomas E. Williams, clinical associate professor of surgery and a retired thoracic and cardiac surgeon. "People may wait hours in an emergency room if there is a shortage of surgeons, but the problem is that if you're not operated on within a few hours, your disease or injury progresses and that can create more serious difficulties in other areas of the body. These are situations that you would not have had with prompt surgical attention."

In emergency rooms, general surgeons are called upon to determine whether to operate on a patient, but an increasing number of medical professionals choose to specialize in other fields such as cardiac or orthopedic surgery. So, the shortage directly will impact emergency rooms around the country, which rely on general surgeons.

There are about 21,500 general surgeons employed in the U.S. today. Each prances for an estimated 30 years and about 705 leave the profession each year due to personal reasons, retirement, or death. Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 surgeons enter the workforce annually. Of that number, 850 will practice general surgery. After accounting for retirees, that means the addition of just 145 new general surgeons, far less than is needed given the continuous rise in the population. However, some authorities have suggested that as many as 600 of these 1,000 surgeons are entering other specialties, creating an even larger shortage than the current study projects.

"Many doctors today want to specialize in areas such as vascular, colon, or thoracic surgery. They'll train for one or two more years beyond general surgical residency so they have more professional expertise, and probably won't take the general surgery calls in emergency rooms," according to Williams.

Attracting students to the medical field is a growing problem, Williams notes. The overwhelming costs of obtaining a medical degree are a large deterrent for many young students, despite scholarships and financial aid. The cost of obtaining a medical degree leaves many students with $125,000 to $150,000 of debt after completing medical school. In addition, students required to train as residents often are underpaid for their work. The average resident earns between $40,000 and $45,000 per year for three to seven years before he or she is board-certified. Compare that to the average salary of a first-year associate at a New York law firm, who will earn $150,000 to $200,000.
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Title Annotation:demand for more surgeons
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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