Shortages forecast for orthopedic surgeons, gastroenterologists

Demand for these specialists will outpace supply in the future, three studies say.

By Brian Hedger — Posted March 12, 2009

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An expected shortage of primary care physicians is getting plenty of attention, but three studies predict that two specialties also will be affected.

Two of the studies were presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in late February. The third, completed by health care consulting firm The Lewin Group, was released in January and focused on gastroenterologists.

Researchers said supply for both specialties will not keep pace with demand for joint replacements and colorectal cancer screenings.

Starting in 2016, 46% of hip replacements and 72% of knee replacements will not be performed, according to a study co-authored by Thomas K. Fehring, MD, a surgeon at OrthoCarolina Hip & Knee Center in Charlotte, N.C. He presented the findings at the AAOS meeting.

A second study presented at the meeting said a key reason for the growth in patient demand for joint replacement is an increase in younger patients. Projections show that by 2011, more than 50% of patients needing hip replacements will be younger than 65. Those younger than 65 needing knee replacements will make up 50% of demand by 2016, according to the report co-authored by Steven M. Kurtz, PhD.

The number of patients requiring knee or hip replacement surgery soon will outpace the number of surgeons who can perform the procedures, researchers said. According to Dr. Fehring's report, more than 700,000 total hip and knee replacements are performed in the U.S. yearly -- with demand expected to double in 10 years.

"I was somewhat shocked at the shortfall that we predicted," Dr. Fehring said in a statement. "This is life-changing surgery, offering patients the chance to be mobile, and a very high percentage of patients may not be able to receive it."

Meanwhile, The Lewin Group study said an additional 1,050 gastroenterologists will be needed by 2020 to meet demand for colorectal cancer screening at its current growth rate -- 1,550 if demand for screening increases by 10%.

"This study finds that the projected demand for gastroenterologists is growing at nearly double the rate of supply," Tim Dall, the study's author and vice president of The Lewin Group, said in a statement. "The shortfall of gastroenterologists could limit the nation's ability to implement national guidelines for [colorectal] screening, particularly in traditionally underserved communities."

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