The global health workforce shortage: role of surgeons and other providers

Adv Surg. 2008;42:63-85. doi: 10.1016/j.yasu.2008.04.006.


The debate over the status of the physician workforce seems to be concluded. It now is clear that a shortage of physicians exists and is likely to worsen. In retrospect it seems obvious that a static annual production of physicians, coupled with a population growth of 25 million persons each decade, would result in a progressively lower physician to population ratio. Moreover, Cooper has demonstrated convincingly that the robust economy of the past 50 years correlates with demand for physician services. The aging physician workforce is an additional problem: one third of physicians are over 55 years of age, and the population over the age of 65 years is expected to double by 2030. Signs of a physician and surgeon shortage are becoming apparent. The largest organization of physicians in the world (119,000 members), the American College of Physicians, published a white paper in 2006 titled, "The Impending Collapse of Primary Care Medicine and Its Implications for the State of the Nation's Health Care" [37]. The American College of Surgeons, the largest organization of surgeons, has published an article on access to emergency surgery [38], and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science has published a book on the future of emergency care (Fig. 10). The reports document diminished involvement and availability of emergency care by general surgeons, neurologic surgeons, orthopedists, hand surgeons, plastic surgeons, and others. The emergency room has become the primary care physician after 5 PM for much of the population. A survey done by the Commonwealth Fund revealed that less than half of primary care practices have an on-call arrangement for after-hours care. Other evidence of evolving shortage are reports of long wait times for appointments, the hospitalist movement, and others. The policies for the future should move beyond dispute over whether or not a shortage exists. The immediate need is for the United States, as a society, to commit to workforce self sufficiency in health care. The reliance on international graduates for more than 25% of the nation's physicians is a transnational problem. Reliance on IMGs, nurses and other health professions for the United States workforce is an issue of international distributive justice. Wealthy, developed countries, such as the United States, should be able to educate sufficient health professionals without relying on a less fortunate country's educated health workers. The 2000 Report of the Chair of the AAMC, the accrediting agency for United States and Canadian medical schools through the LCME, recommended expansion of medical school class sizes and expansion of medical schools [41]. For the past 25 years, the AAMC has supported a no-growth policy and the goal that 50% of USMGs be primary care physicians. In 2003, the AAMC developed a workforce center,-led by Edward Salsberg. The workforce center has provided valuable data and monitoring of the evolving workforce graduating from medical and and osteopathic schools in the United States. The NRMP, also managed by the AAMC, has begun useful studies analyzing the specialty choices of the more than 20,000 participants in the Match each year. The AAMC workforce policy was altered in 2006, and a 12-point policy statement was issued (see http://aamc.workforceposition.pdf). Three of the 12 points reflected significant change from past positions. They are a call for a 30% increase in physicians graduated by United States allopathic medical schools and an increase in residency positions now limited by the BBA of 1997. The recommendation that students make personal specialty choices reversed the prior recommendation that a majority of students enter primary care practice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Allied Health Personnel / supply & distribution*
  • Education, Medical / organization & administration
  • General Surgery*
  • Humans
  • Internationality
  • Physicians / supply & distribution*
  • United States
  • Workforce