Gastroenterologist Shortage Being Forecasted
Experts predict a shortage of gastroenterologists by the year 2020. This prediction is not based on the number of physicians opting to enter this specialty, but instead, on the presumed demand. The international community is experiencing a flux of seniors and that is likely to increase the need for colorectal cancer screening. A 2009 study by The Lewin Group looks closely at how this phenomenon could affect the gastroenterology industry and overall health care.
The Senior Boom
Back in revolutionary times, the life expectancy was only 35 years, but today, the improvements of modern medicine have added 40 years to the number. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions lists the average life expectancy of 78.7 years with seniors being the fastest growing population in the country.
This shift is aging trends plus the renewed focus on preventive medicine is leading more and more individuals to colorectal screenings. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer related deaths is the U.S, according to the American Cancer Society – making it a concern for the general population.
Based on the current rate of screenings, the study by the Lewin Group estimates that the United States will need an additional 1,050 gastroenterologists by the year 2020 just to meet the demand. Given the advancing age of the baby Boomer generation that figure may change substantially.
An increase in colorectal cancer screening rates of just 10 percent would add another 500 doctors to the quota necessary to meet this demand. As of 2009, the year of the study, there were only 10,390 physicians with this specialty in the U.S. According to the Lewin study, the projected demand for GI specialists is growing at twice the rate of supply.
How the Shortage could Affect Healthcare
Tim Dall from the Lewin Group, and author of the study, suggests that the lack of available gastroenterologists has the potential to affect testing practices. Current guidelines recommend patients with an average risk of colorectal cancer have their first screening around age 50. Only about 60 percent of people who qualify have gone through the screening process with that number is even lower for minority groups.
While the current shortage of gastroenterologists is not that different from other medical disciplines, it is a cause for concern given the rise in the senior population. Dr. David A. Johnson, chief of gastroenterology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, adds screening for colorectal cancer is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent the disease. As people get older, it will gain in prevalence and more screenings will be necessary.
Answering the Call
The study commissioned by Olympus, a manufacturer of the cameras used in screenings, points out a real need to entice physicians into this specialty. Dr. Patrick I. Okolo III, chief of endoscopy at Johns Hopkins University, is calling for a comprehensive and focused approach to broaden both the number and quality of doctors who train in this field.
Olympus is using their study to push for federal funding of gastroenterology fellowship programs to improve the supply/demand ratio. The GI Bill for GIs project would make 50 million dollars available towards fellowship programs with a goal of training 130 new gastroenterologists a year over a 5-year period.
Experts in the gastroenterologist community and with the Lewin group believe this will be money well spent. The shortage of specialty physicians able to do proper colorectal cancer screening could potentially affect the implementation of national guidelines for cancer prevention.