Point of View

Raising residency cap one easy fix for looming doctor shortage

March 24, 2014 

Last Friday was match day for fourth-year medical students across the country – a nerve-wracking day on which soon-to-be-doctors get paired up with their residencies where they will spend their next five years learning in a teaching hospital.

However, this day isn’t necessarily a celebration for all. In theory, every graduating medical student will receive a place in a hospital. But every year, a large number of extremely qualified students fail to match with a hospital. This is not due to their inadequacy or shortcomings but simply because there are not enough residency spots in U.S. teaching hospitals.

The U.S. is already facing a massive doctor shortage, one that will only worsen in the coming years. Estimates predict that by 2025, the demand for physicians in all specialties will outstrip the supply by as many as 216,000 doctors across the country. Already, many states are reporting doctors turning patients away from practices, stretched thin and unable to take on even more burdens. Doctors are desperately needed across the board in all positions and especially in rural areas, such as Eastern North Carolina.

A major cause of this physician shortage is a government-imposed cap on the number of federally funded medical residency positions. Upon graduating medical school, prospective doctors must complete a federally funded residency program at a U.S. teaching hospital before being allowed to practice. But the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 imposed a cap on annual residency positions at 26,000, effectively limiting the supply of doctors. Since that date, no provisions have been made to raise this cap, despite growth in the U.S. population and the emergence of an aging demographic who will stress the current system to the breaking point.

There is a solution in the works, though. A bill to increase the residency cap will alleviate this problem by eliminating the bottleneck at that particular hurdle. By allowing more residents to learn and train to practice medicine, the number of doctors will steadily increase to combat the oncoming shortage. Senate Bill 577, The Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2013, will raise the cap by 15,000 over five years. These 15,000 new residents will be distributed across the country and, beyond providing valuable medical services, will help stimulate the economy as well. Teaching hospitals provide tangible economic boosts and benefits to the surrounding community, and expanding them will only help North Carolinian cities and towns.

It’s imperative that this bill not languish in the Senate any longer. Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr have not formally backed the bill, but with the community’s advocacy, their support could be thrown behind this essential law.

I am a prospective medical school student. If this doctor shortage trend continues, not only will many of my future peers be denied spots in the medical community, but my hometown of Wake Forest could also face crippling care shortages. Raising the cap is critical not only from a nationwide economic and health care standpoint but also to protect and care for the place that raised me.

Steven Lim of Wake Forest is a senior

at Georgetown University in Washington.

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