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Discouraged doctors

Government overreach and a shortage of physicians

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This is the 22nd in a series of classic columns (edited for space) by Joel Belz. Joel wrote about a looming doctor shortage in the April 9, 2010, issue of WORLD. Eleven years later, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that the country faces a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.

For the last 20 years, I’ve made it a point, whenever I met someone who was a doctor, a lawyer, a minister, or some other kind of “professional”—and as often as I thought it was polite to do so—to ask quite simply: “If you had it to do over again, knowing everything you know now, would you still go into this profession?”

And I’ve been stunned how many times the answer has been quick and direct: “No way!”

Especially among physicians (and nurses), if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “If I could go back and actually help people with their physical problems, I’d love it. But to spend half my life filling out forms? Probably not.”

Then I read that as early as 2006, nearly 60 percent of doctors polled by the American College of Physician Executives said they had considered getting out of medicine because of low morale, and nearly 70 percent knew someone who already had. Does anyone imagine that the statistics have improved over the last four years?

And does anybody remotely believe that such statistics will do anything but get much worse over the next few years? The name of the game when the federal government moves in with more oversight is what you might call “nuisance monitoring.” It has yet to enhance the passionate practice of any occupation known to humankind.

So I’ve made it a point over the last few days, since the passage of Barack Obama’s infamous healthcare bill, to inquire of a number of my friends and acquaintances who are doctors about what they think the next few years hold for them. It’s not a heartening picture.

Noteworthy in their responses is the total absence of complaints about how life is going to get worse for them as individuals. Their main worry is for the lives, care, and peace of mind of their patients.

“Here’s the bottom line,” one family doctor told me—summarizing well what I heard from them all. “I will soon be asked to see more patients every day—and I already come home exhausted and sometimes uncertain whether the diagnoses I’ve reached and the treatment I’ve prescribed is right-on. I don’t like the thought of coming home even more weary—but I especially don’t like the effect of that on my patients.

“And I will be paid less for that increased work load. Congress has already dictated that, chopping Medicare and Medicaid payments in order to pretend that the whole system works financially. I think a lot of people would be surprised how relatively little a family practitioner earns—typically in the low hundreds, and that’s against a background of galloping costs for maintaining an office, for malpractice insurance, and for repayment of huge personal debt for an outrageously costly medical education. … But if doctors’ pay keeps shrinking, so will the number of young men and women committing themselves to the profession. And then the squeeze for service will get much worse.

“All of which means,” my friend concluded, “that rationing will become a necessity. … Now we’re headed, sure as you know anything at all, for a system where the government—or one of its thinly disguised agents—will be making all those decisions.

“In one sense,” my friend said wistfully, “I suppose all those developments might even take a little pressure off me. I’ll quit worrying—the way any bureaucrat quits worrying. I’ll just do my job.”

But I doubt if that’s the kind of doctor most people want. I doubt if that’s the kind of calling most young men and women first felt when they chose to go into the field of medicine. I can’t remember when I heard a kid say, “When I grow up, I want to be a bureaucrat.”

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things. Visit WORLD’s memorial tribute page.


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