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Can Money Fix the Global Doctor Shortage?

November 07, 2008 06:58 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Australia is spending $100 million to address its doctor shortage, a worldwide problem with complex roots that many countries are struggling to cope with.

Various Reasons for Doctor Shortage

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According to Bloomberg, Australia’s health ministry is planning to spend $102 million for new doctor training in its attempt to “address a shortage of general practitioners that affects six in 10 people.” An additional 175 graduates will be able to train as general practitioners because of the funds.

Australia’s shortage of doctors is indicative of a worldwide trend, caused by several factors, including health worker migration and an increase in female doctors, who often leave the industry. In addition, many medical students are choosing to specialize instead of becoming family doctors.

In June 2008, the World Health Organization estimated “a global shortage of over 4.3 million health workers,” according to M2 Presswire. Furthermore, 57 countries were dealing with “critical shortages,” and migration of doctors and nurses has contributed to the problem. Although migration “can solve staff shortages in some countries,” it also creates shortages in nations already lacking staff. In Europe, some countries have seen 30 percent increases in foreign-trained health care workers.

In Canada, the increasing number of women pursuing careers in medicine has added another element to the country’s doctor shortage. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 80 percent of the health care work force is female, and “the majority of students at nearly all of Canada’s 17 medical schools are female.” The problem is that women physicians often leave the industry to devote more time to family, and work fewer hours than their male counterparts, according to studies.

Richard Baker, founder of Vancouver-based Timely Medical Alternative, said, “When you lay an increasing number of women physicians on top of the fact that we already have a shortage of family doctors, specialists and services, it becomes critical.”

Another issue exacerbating the doctor shortage is the lack of medical students pursuing primary care. According to Salon, primary care physicians “are an endangered species.” In 1998, 54 percent of U.S. medical school graduates pursued primary care, but by 2005, that percentage had fallen to 20 percent. There are many “diverse, complex and often conflicting motivations” among medical students selecting their specialties. Primary care is less lucrative than most other specialties as well, reports Salon.

Background: Primary care

In the United States, the primary care system is “broken,” according to Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Problems with primary care have driven some patients to boutique clinics, which charge patients high entry fees for more personalized services. The number of patients at boutiques is limited, office visits are often longer, and doctors often make themselves available by cell phone and email.

Other primary care doctors are harkening back to previous generations by branching out on their own. These doctors are maintaining personal relationships with patients, and rebelling against big, consolidated medical groups’ “emphasis on the bottom line.” But small practices are expensive and exhausting to maintain.

Related Topic: Psychiatrist shortage

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