PHYSICIAN SURPLUS: Fears Unfounded, Expert Says
Warnings of a looming physician glut took on urgency in the early 1990s and even sparked proposals to slash training positions, but such dire results have not played out, said workforce expert Dr. Richard Cooper, director of the Health Policy Institute at the Medical College of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Although there are an "abundance" of physicians, the numbers come nowhere close to experts' predictions of 165,000 surplus physicians by 2000, Coopers told an audience at the American Medical Association's International Graduate Section. Audience members were particularly attentive -- slots for international students are likely to be the first to see the ax. Referring to the recommendations of the Council on Graduate Medical Education, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the AMA Council of Medical Education, Cooper said that groups should discard proposals to trim training programs. "[T]he surplus is too small to merit changes in policy," he said, pointing to his own 1995 prediction of a 31,000 physicians surplus in 2000 with a "fairly steep fall" in physician surplus after 2010. By contrast, the Bureau of Health Professions in 1995 estimated a 73,000 surplus and the Council on Graduate Medical Education estimated 80,000, both of which trail expert Dr. Jonathan Weiner's warnings of a 165,000 surplus.
Cooper said his predictions differed widely from his counterparts' estimates in part because "physician supply is an imprecise science that cannot be based on clear-cut data," American Medical News reports. Data regarding unemployment among physicians can be misleading, he said, noting that few doctors are unemployed. Other estimates based on population surveys often overlook "the impact of aging physicians, women and employed doctors working shorter hours, advances in medical technology and an aging patient population." In urging U.S. groups to hold off on plans to ax training programs, Cooper pointed to Canadian authorities who slashed training programs only to face a physician shortage. "You can't match up supply and demand and you shouldn't even try," he said (Page, 7/5 issue).