Nearly six months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, many hard-hit healthcare systems have begun resuming elective surgeries and redeploying surgeons, residents, and fellows back to their home departments after enlisting them in COVID wards and ICUs.
These practitioners are returning physically exhausted and emotionally strained from the harrowing experience of serving on the front lines of the COVID response. Meanwhile, they have also seen their training interrupted, in some cases for many months, hindering their professional development. Nevertheless, their focus now turns to a backlog of cases from, as the New York Times put it, the pandemic’s “hidden victims” – patients suffering from other serious health conditions whose care has been postponed by the ravages of the novel coronavirus.
But can healthcare systems effectively accommodate this backlog – or even meet regular population needs while the pandemic remains and even after it is long gone?
The reality is that while COVID-19 has highlighted a wide range of problems in healthcare – from socioeconomic disparities to strained capacity in the face of surging demand – these challenges are but a sneak preview of what’s to come without serious reforms to update surgical training and practice.
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To meet the unprecedented demand for surgical services over the coming years, healthcare systems must leverage innovations in technology and training to improve efficiency, more effectively disseminate expertise, and scale best practices. Formidable as our healthcare challenges are, they aren’t insurmountable – so long as stakeholders commit to moving beyond an outdated status quo.
How serious is the scope of the crisis facing surgeons?
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States could be short as many as 23,400 surgeons by 2032, and the Department of Health and Human Services forecasts shortages in nine of 10 surgical specialties by 2025.
Given the aging American population, these shortages pose a dire threat to the healthcare system’s capacity to serve those most in need of surgical care. By 2030, 21 percent of Americans will be 65 years old or more, compared with 15 percent in 2014, according to Census Bureau projections.
By midcentury, the picture is set to worsen. An analysis published in the journal Surgery found that the general surgical workforce shortage by 2050 is on track to be somewhere between 15 -21 percent. Notably, that forecast assumes no new initiatives to expand surgical training.
Source: Hit Consultant