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New Study Warns of Surgeon Shortage

If you've waited a long time in an emergency room lately - it's probably not because there are more patients- but because there are fewer physicians. And it's not just primary care doctors that are in short supply. New research predicts that as early as 2010 there won't be enough general surgeons to keep up with current demand.

According to the report by Ohio State researchers, the reason for the doctor shortage is simple: the number of physicians entering the work force has remained constant for more than 25 years while the population has grown by roughly a third in the same time period. Ohio State University professor of surgery Thomas Williams co-authored the report that was published in a recent issue of the journal Surgery. He says a shortage of surgeons will be more acutely felt by the healthcare industry because surgeons aren't as easily replaced as other types of doctors.

WILLIAMS: You can extend primary care by employing nurse practitioners. You can extend some of the anesthesia care by nurse anesthetists. You can extend some of the OB care by nurse midwives but a nurse midwife cannot perform a cesarean section.

Williams says a number of factors contributes to the shortage of American physicians. Not only have medical schools maintained the same enrollment levels for decades, but federal funding to train medical school graduates has been capped since 1996. Furthermore, he says high medical school and training costs have encouraged young doctors to specialize in the most lucrative fields.

Williams estimates residency programs will need to graduate an additional 156 surgeons a year for the next 12 years to meet workforce demands by 2020, at a total cost of $750 million dollars.

Gretchen Cuda, WCPN