Concerns arise around potential shortage of cardiothoracic surgeons

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 - Tim Casey
Tim Casey, Executive Editor

Within the next 20 years, cardiothoracic surgeons may not be able to handle their caseload, causing stress not only for the physicians but also for patients who require operations.

The projection from researchers at Ohio State University is based on three major assumptions: the number of patients needing surgery will significantly increase, the U.S. population will significantly grow and the number of cardiothoracic surgeons will not increase to meet patients’ needs.

Lead researcher Susan Moffatt-Bruce, MD, PhD, and colleagues made their prediction by evaluating data from the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. The results were presented on May 17 at the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS) annual meeting.

They estimate that the average caseload per surgeon may increase by 121 percent from 2010 to 2035.

“We predict that there will be an inability to provide cardiothoracic services in 2035 due to the shortage of surgeons and an unknown but increasing caseload,” Moffat-Bruce said in a news release.

The problem of physician shortages has been a hot topic in healthcare for several years, particularly after the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. Under the ACA, millions more Americans have health insurance, meaning they need to see doctors. However, enrollments in medical schools have not kept up with the pace of the growing number of insured residents and the U.S. population in general.

In March 2015, IHS, Inc. released a report that projects that will be a shortage of 46,100 to 90,400 physicians by 2025. The company estimates a shortage of between 12,500 and 31,100 primary care physicians and between 28,200 to 63,700 non-primary care physicians. HIS conducted the research for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

“The doctor shortage is real--it’s significant--and it’s particularly serious for the kind of medical care that our aging population is going to need,” AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, MD, said in a news release.

The dire projections are not new for cardiothoracic surgeons, either. In January 2010, two months before the ACA passed, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and AATS released a report outlining the impending shortage.

The medical organizations said that the demand for cardiothoracic surgeons could increase by as much as 46 percent by 2025. At the same time, there was a 40 percent decrease in applications to cardiothoracic surgery residency programs from 2004 to 2008. And in 2009, cardiothoracic surgery residency programs only filled 97 of 115 openings, according to the news release.

Six years after that report’s release, the situation doesn’t seem to have improved much, at least according to Moffat-Bruce and her colleagues.

“We feel [the projected increase in caseload per surgeon] is not feasible and a sign of a problem that must be addressed head on so to increase the number of those successful trained and willing to increase their case volume in a time of value-based care,” Moffatt-Bruce said.