Letters from Maine

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In a Pediatrics article, Hsuan-hsiu Annie Chen, MD, offers a very personal and candid narrative of her struggle with depression during medical school and residency (Pediatrics. 2019 Sep 1. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-1210). Dr. Chen knows from personal experience that she was not alone in her cohort as she faced the challenges of sleep deprivation and emotional trauma that continue to be a part of a physician’s education and training. In her discussion of how future medical trainees might be spared some of the long hours she endured, Dr. Chen suggests that this country consider expanding its physician workforce by “increasing the number of medical schools and recruiting foreign medical graduates” as some European countries have done. Dr. Chen now works in the pediatric residency office at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles.

young female medical doctor sitting at the desk in office head in hands Cameravit/iStock/Getty Images

Ironically, or maybe it was intentionally, the editors of Pediatrics chose to open the same issue in which Dr. Chen’s personal story appears with a Pediatrics Perspective commentary that looks into the murky waters of physician workforce research (Pediatrics. 2019 Sep 1. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-0469). Gary L. Freed, MD, MPH, at the Child Health Evaluation and Research Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, claims that, in general, the data currently being generated by workforce research must be interpreted with caution because many of the studies are flawed by one or more biases.

You may have survived the gauntlet of medical school and residency relatively unscathed. But does your current work environment bring back memories of how stressed you felt on the worst days during your training? Is part of the problem that your clinic is seeing too many patients with too few physicians? Do your colleagues share your opinion? Is the administration actively recruiting more physicians, but failing to find interested and qualified doctors? Is this a strictly local phenomenon limited to your community, or is it a regional shortage? Do you think your situation reflects a national trend that deserves attention?

Like Dr. Chen, do you think that more medical schools and active recruitment of foreign medical students would allow you to work less hours? Obviously, even if you were a teenager when you entered your residency, opening more medical schools is not going to allow you to shorten your workday. But are more medical schools the best solution for this country’s overworked physicians even in the long term? Dr. Freed’s observations should make you hesitant to even venture a guess.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

You, I, and Dr. Chen only can report on how we perceive our own work environment. Your local physician shortage may be in part because the school system in your community has a poor reputation and young physicians don’t want to move there. It may be that the hospital that owns your practice is struggling and can’t afford to offer a competitive salary. Producing more physicians may not be the answer to the physician shortage in communities like yours, even in the long run.

This is a very large country with relatively porous boundaries between the states for physicians. Physician supply and demand seldom dictates where physicians choose to practice. In fact, a medically needy community is probably the least likely place a physician just finishing her training will choose to settle.

Although adding another physician to your practice may decrease your workload, can your personal finances handle the hit that might occur as you see less patients? Particularly, if the new hire turns out to be a rock star who siphons off more of your patients than you anticipated. On the other hand, there is always the chance that, despite careful vetting, your group hires a lemon who ends up creating more trouble than he is worth.

As Dr. Freed suggests, trying to determine just how many and what kind of physicians we need is complicated. It may be just a roll of the dice at best.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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