Access to care

A surgeon shortage is mounting, recent report finds

By 2032, the U.S. will lack as many as 23,000 surgeons, according to the report. The impending shortage has led to new legislation being introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Evidence of a surgeon shortage is mounting. By 2032, the U.S. will lack as many as 23,000 surgeons, according to an April report on physician supply and demand from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Physician demand will continue to outpace supply, with a projected total shortfall of between 46,900 and 121,900 physicians by 2032.
  • The U.S. will also see a primary care physician shortage of 21,100 to 55,200 physicians by 2032;
  • A shortfall across non-primary care specialties of 24,800 to 65,800; and
  • A shortage of physicians in surgical specialties of 14,300 to 23,400.

The surgeon shortage is of particular alarm considering the boom in aging Americans, the AAMC report notes. The number of people 65 and older is expected to reach 83.7 million in 2050, according to the U.S. Census.

A 2016 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) workforce analysis also projected shortages in nine out of 10 surgical specialties by 2025, with the largest shortages in general surgery, urology, ophthalmology and orthopedic surgery.

A 2018 assessment in the journal Surgery of the shortage of general surgeons found that “without increasing future general surgeons training numbers, the projected future general surgical workforce shortage will continue to grow.”

Impending surgeon shortage prompts introduction of legislation

Incentivizing general surgeons to practice in communities with workforce shortages remains a challenge. The first step to ensure more equitable access to care is to identify those areas.

Legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March to counter the impending shortage. The Ensuring Access to General Surgery Act (HR 1841) would direct HHS to conduct a study to define and identify general surgery shortage areas and then give the Secretary of HHS the authority to designate general surgery shortage areas based on the study’s findings.

“Determining where patients lack access to surgical services will provide HHS with a valuable tool for increasing access to the full spectrum of high-quality health care services,” reads a statement by the American College of Surgeons to the representatives who introduced the legislation.

3 comments

  1. Creation of new medical schools and residency spaces has not kept pace with the exponential growth of the US population, so we will of course see a shortfall.

  2. The supply & demand aspect of medicine is irrelevant. While pay for most professions is based on supply & demand, pay for doctors is predetermined by reimbursement rates set by the government. Should medicaid & medicare reimbursement be lowered enough to make an excessively long & overly expensive medical education a less attractive investment, the number of med school applicants will plummet. If that happens expensive for profit schools will shrivel & die or more likely they will accept severely under qualified candidates to keep the money flowing into their investors pockets. The other problem medicine is facing is we are rapidly reaching the point of tapping out the number of people intellectually capable of succeeding in medical school. Already many of our brightest are going into other fields because the medical route is too long. My brother who is far brighter than myself went into dentistry because it doesn’t require a residency, some of my smartest friends went into engineering, they finished in 4 years & will earn the same amount as most primary care physicians & will do so with a fraction of the debt & more earning years. Others don’t enter medicine because the field is notorious for having a miserable work life balance. There is absolutely no reason to require a 4 year degree before starting med school & already many schools have shown they can train great doctors in 3 instead of 4 years. I see hard times ahead for the profession.

  3. agree with Jansz
    Surgery is an awful training and life afterwards. It is just not that attractive to many competitive med students that may have other choices.

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