The number of applicants for cardiothoracic surgery training positions has fallen short for the fifth consecutive year, jeopardizing future access to specialists who treat heart and lung disease.
Approximately 94 of 118 available heart and lung surgery residency positions will be filled, according to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, citing data from the National Residency Match Program, which places residents. Last year, only 87 of the 130 surgery training positions were filled, resulting in a 33 percent vacancy rate.
Over time, the shortfall is likely to limit access to care, including the postponements of surgeries, the society warned. Heart disease currently affects 70 million Americans, and lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the US, killing more Americans annually than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined.
"We all have a family member or friend who has been diagnosed with clogged arteries or other serious heart problems. We've all read about how the rate of lung cancer has increased by 60 percent," said Dr. Randolph Chitwood, Jr., STS President. "Ultimately, everyone is going to be touched by this problem."
The shortage also is exacerbated by the aging surgeon workforce. The average
age of a practicing heart and lung surgeon today is over 55 years, and reports
indicate that more than half expect to retire within the next decade.
"We are suffering from a 'brain drain' of increasingly dangerous proportions," Chitwood said. "Heart and lung surgeons are starting to retire, and there aren't enough new generation surgeons to replace them - that could mean compromised patient care in the very near future."
Part of the problem is that becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon requires a
major time commitment. It takes 12 years of medical school and residency to
train a cardiothoracic surgeon. Most are 36 years old when they begin practice.
As a result, the society has been calling on Congress to enact reforms that will protect access to surgical care. STS supports the Higher Education Act, which includes a provision on loan forgiveness in areas with physicians in short supply.
It also is urging an overhaul of the Medicare physician reimbursement system that would allow for market-based adjustments in the economics of the health care delivery system.