Med School Grads Haven't Increased Since 1980; Nurses Can Help, But the AMA Protects Its Turf
Physicians in the U.S. made an average of about $200,000 in 1996, which was between 2 and 5 times as much as doctors made in European countries and Japan (see chart above). The median physician salary in the U.S. is now closer to $275,000 (data here). How do we explain the significantly higher physician salaries in the U.S. compared to other countries? Here's one possible explanation:
The supply of medical school graduates has remained basically flat for the last 30 years (data here). At the same time, the demand for physicians' services has increased over time because of a population that is both increasing and aging. So we've now got more people with more serious end-of-life medical problems demanding more medical care from a limited supply of physicians - and that's a sure prescription for rising MD salaries.
Why hasn't the supply of physicians increased to meet the rising demand for medical services, the way the supply of web designers or software programmers has increased to meet the rising demand for those professions? As Dennis Cauchon wrote in USA Today in 2005 about the doctor shortage:
"The marketplace doesn't determine how many doctors the nation has, as it does for engineers, pilots and other professions. The number of doctors is a political decision, heavily influenced by doctors themselves. Congress controls the supply of physicians by how much federal funding it provides for medical residencies — the graduate training required of all doctors."
And we're now going to provide health care to an additional 20-30 million Americans under health care reform when the number of new physicians this year is about the same as the graduating class of 1980? Just wondering, did Congress ever consider the reality reflected in the graph above that there has been no increase in the supply of physicians for the last 30 years when they passed health care reform to extend coverage to millions of uninsured?
Here's one solution from Steve Chapman, who suggests that we can "Nurse Our Way Out of the Doctor Shortage":
"Thanks to health care reform, millions of previously uninsured Americans will have policies enabling them to go to the doctor when necessary without financial fear. But it's a bit like giving everyone a plane ticket to fly tomorrow. If the planes are all full, you won't be going anywhere.
There are not a lot of doctors sitting in their offices like the Maytag repairman, playing solitaire and wishing a patient would drop by. Most of them manage to stay plenty busy. Nor is there a tidal wave of young physicians about to roll in to quench this new thirst for medical care.
Regardless, there seems to be no doubt that it will get harder to find someone to treat you, it may cost more and you'll spend two hours in the waiting room instead of one.
Or maybe not. What people with medical problems need is medical care, but you don't always need a physician to get treatment. You might also see a different sort of trained professional — say, a nurse practitioner, physician's assistant, nurse or physical therapist."
MP: Unfortunately, the medical cartel is not keen on competition from nurses, and according to this news report:
"The medical establishment is fighting to protect turf. The American Medical Association, which supported the national health care overhaul, says a doctor shortage is no reason to put nurses in charge and endanger patients."