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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Why Isn’t the Medical Community Outraged About the Residency Shortage?

Why isn’t the medical community outraged by this grave injustice, the Residency Shortage?  From what I have observed, doctors fall into 2 camps on this topic.  Physicians working in Academic Medicine at universities et al, would probably be aware of the current situation in residencies.  And those doctors in the private sector would generally not know about the shortage.  So this topic is “under the radar” for a huge percentage of practicing physicians, except for those who have completed residency in the recent past.  So why has Academic Medicine not lead the charge to correct this residency deficit, completing the last step of medical training?

There exists a tradition in Medicine that I have observed over the last 40 years.  I would compare it to a “fraternity of the Ivory Tower”.  Great reverence is shown to the leading gurus in the specialties of Medicine, the Professors.  These professors are the ones who write the textbooks used in the fields of Medicine, they are the ones conducting current research, and they are at the “cutting edge” of the most recent methods being used currently in the practice of Medicine today.  Here is how this “fraternity” operates.  The “Professor” functions in a role called, “The Attending Physician”.  Below the Attending comes the “Fellow”, a doctor specializing in the Attending’s field of Medicine.  Next, is the “Chief Resident”, followed by the third year resident (in a 4 year residency), second and first year residents, the Intern, and finally the “Medical Student”.  The lowest position in this hierarchy reports and is accountable to the person above.  During patient rounds in the hospital, questions are asked at the varying levels of difficulty and if the answer is “I don’t know”, you better find out that answer by the next day’s rounds or you will regret it!  Also, the residency schedule demands an extreme number of work hours per week.  In the last 15 years the maximum number of hours/week is 80 hours.  These hours are strictly regulated and are kept in detailed logs to prevent loss of accreditation  to a residency.  Take note, the LIMIT is 80 hours/week, twice a “normal” work week.  And unless you want disapproval from your peers who will have to take over your work load, don’t even think about taking a “sick day”!  There exists a definite work ethic and “sprit de corp” mentality that exists in this “combat like” training experience.  You better do your job or face disapproval by your peers.

Go back now to why Academic Medicine has not “lead the charge” to correct the Residency Shortage.  The traditions I described about the hierarchy of the medical education process translate into rewards and respect for excellence by your peers.  Those who excel are rewarded, and those who are lacking have to keep working.  Even though this crisis of the Residency Shortage is a result of Medicare Funding cuts by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the ramifications are not always clear cut.  The first instinct when a doctor does not match into a residency, is for those in Medicine to assume the doctor did not receive high scores in medical school, did not get good recommendations, or was a poor worker.  In essence, they got what they deserved.  They “just” have to re-apply next year, or have to go do some research, or work for free in an indigent care clinic to obtain some new recommendations.  This is how the “thinking” goes.  So no wonder Academic Medicine is not in an uproar!  Yet, even when they know it is a “numbers” problem, the lingering belief is that if an unmatched doctor had only been a “little bit better”, they would have matched.  It seems kind of crazy when we know there actually is a “shortage”.  But I think the traditions of Medicine’s hierarchy of learning come into play, even if only subconsciously.  So I have not observed a call to action for the Residency Shortage by the Academic Medicine community.

As CEO of ACGME (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education), Thomas Nasca MD, inferred that IMGs (International Medical Graduate) were “lesser” doctor applicants.  If they were better students, they would have gotten into a US medical school.  So he does not appear to be worried about unmatched IMGs.  This feeling has influenced the stance of the AMA.  While the AMA has called for an increase in residency slots, their “position” talks mainly about US medical graduates who are less impacted by the Residency Shortage than IMGs.  In the 2017 Match, 69% of unmatched doctors were IMGs and 27.6% were US citizens.  The AMA still questions the Residency Shortage since most US grads have matched.  Perhaps, the AMA feels its responsibility is to graduates of US medical schools, although 25% of physicians practicing in the US today are IMGs.

Private practitioners I know lead exceedingly busy professional lives.  Even if they are aware of the Residency Shortage, they have little time and resources to create an outcry for a solution.  Although EVERYONE, doctor or non-doctor alike, is incredulous when they learn about the travesty of the Residency Shortage.  They view the inability to complete the last required step in training as a “blind-side”, an injustice, a travesty.

What about the unmatched doctors themselves?  They are “scattered” throughout the US.  There is no published list of unmatched applicants, to my knowledge.  Basically, the unmatched doctor is suffering their own personal devastation alone.  Other than, “someone who knows someone”, unmatched doctors are not broadcasting this news.  Ironically, they are actually still hoping they will match next time, and don’t want this “unsavory” quality disseminated.  I do not believe they realize how the deluge of applicants is affecting their chances for a subsequent match.  Not until they have re-applied 3-4 times will they start to “connect the dots”.  They are being selectively ignored by a system which cannot comfortably process the deluge of applicants, and one that does not want to select perceived “lesser candidates”.

These are the reasons I believe that have prevented the Residency Shortage from becoming a national uproar. By the time the “public” discovers this problem and the ensuing doctor shortage, it will already be too late for a timely solution.