The prognosis is dire: By the year 2020, there will be a nationwide shortage of 85,000 doctors. The recommended treatment? Increase the number of medical school students by 15 percent each year.

Angela Cesere
Graphic by Mathew Daniels

The congressional Council on Graduate Medical Education presented this scenario in a report released last month, and Medical advocacy organizations are heeding COGME’s call to action. The Association of American Medical Colleges has changed its position from claiming there is an oversupply of physicians to calling for a “modest increase in medical school enrollment,” according to a press release.

Reversing the decades-old stance that there are too many medical students, medical schools around the country are preparing to increase the number of students they enroll. A recent AAMC poll showed that 31 percent of medical schools were “definitely” or “probably” going to increase enrollment in the next few years, with another 20 percent “possibly” planning on taking the same route.

The dean of admissions and the director of the Medical School could not be reached for comment because they are out of the country.

The reason for the dramatic shortfall lies in a revised formula for calculating physician supply. Unanticipated factors, such as the retiring crop of baby-boomer doctors, higher-than-expected rates of population and economic growth and new doctors’ desires to work fewer hours. The need for physicians that are trained in operating new medical technology has also inflated the demand.

There has also been an upending of the stance on medical specialists versus general practitioners. For years, perceiving a glut of specialists, the federal government subsidized the education of general practitioners. Faced with a newfound shortage of specialists, governmental caps will be lifted and economic forces will be allowed to dictate the number of doctors who become specialists.

Demand is also driven by supply, as studies have shown that an increased supply of doctors will generate its own increased demand for health care services.

Richard Cooper, former dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin, has been warning the medical community about an impending doctor shortage for years. Cooper’s own estimates show a shortage of up to 200,000 physicians by 2020. In a November paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Cooper reiterated his stance that “physician shortages are upon us and are likely to worsen over time.”

In a response, the journal’s editors agreed that “we’ve barely begun to do the necessary homework.”

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