I read an interesting piece in the Atlantic Monthly last week questioning the almost dogmatic assumption that the United States is facing a physician shortage is the coming years. The link only gives you the first couple of paragraphs unless you're a subscriber, so either subscribe or buy the hard copy off the rack. We're always reading that we need to train more doctors, that with the aging population there won't be enough physicians to satisfy demand. But then I was waiting for the elevator the other day, reading the names of all the doctors on the peg board who practice at one of my hospitals. The board is 4x4 feet and just crammed with names, names, names. It's unbelievable how many doctors there are. There's two large GI groups. There's three general surgery groups. There's three separate pulmonary groups. The ID group has 7 doctors. (Don't get me started on ID again). And on and on. What we have isn't a physician shortage, but rather a physician overabundance. And I don't think it's too different at most suburban hospitals across the country. The scenario isn't one of overworked doctors struggling to keep up with the demands of patients waiting in line for care. Rather, it's a hyper-competitive world of doctors in the same specialty fighting over a limited supply of patients. Hence, all the ass-kissing and overwrought phony letters specialists have to send to primary care docs for "the privilege of assisting in the care of this highly interesting and fascinating patient." If I were to suddenly disappear from the face pf the earth like that Chris McCandless dude in "Into the Wild", the other surgeons here would be more than willing to swoop in and score my referral base. Patients would not be affected (other than in quality, of course). I mean, maybe if you live somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska or Wyoming, you worry about physician availability, but not in major metropolitan areas at private hospitals if you have insurance.
So here's a moral dilemma. As a physician in training, what obligations do you have to society in undertaking a career than is essentially one of service? Everyone wants to be a specialist. It pays more. It's more interesting. You get to do procedures. Maybe the lifestyle is better. These are important issues. You're just a human being with selfish desires like everyone else. Why should you go into primary care and work long hours at low pay, based in some practice in Coscocton, Ohio because there's a demographic need? Increasing medical school enrollments isn't going to solve the problem. You'll just end up with proportionally more cardiologists, more gastroenterologists, more cardiac surgeons to flood an already supesaturated metropolitan market. Until we compensate primary care/family practice in such a way wo make it financially appealing to medical students, there's still going to be physician shortages in South Dakota and Southern Ohio and Rural Kansas.
At Cook County hospital in Chicago where I trained, people wait 6-8 months to get their hernias repaired or gallbladders removed. Old guys show up lugging around these fifty pound scrotal hernias. At Northwestern or Rush, you wait a few days or weeks. If you're a VIP, you wait a few hours. Now, I'm not naive enough to be morally offended by this. That's the way the world works. Money talks. Nothing different than the way things have been for a thousand years of human interaction. But there are physician shortages. Right here in front of us. Right in the middle of cosmopolitan, wealthy, sophisticated Chicago. People go without access to health care. What is a physician's responsibility to help remedy this? We all go into six figures of debt to pay for med school. We defer gratification for material things until well into our thirties. And now we have to accept low paying jobs taking care of ungrateful patients in lousy isolated rural towns or inner city free clinics? I don't know. Maybe we should. It's something all docs need to explore, I think. I know I've been thinking about it. Doctors without borders, and other volunteer opportunites are an option. Maybe I'll have to show up one day in South Africa and see what I can do to help old Bongi.