The physician shortage's effect on the orthopedic industry


The physician shortage is a threat to every area of healthcare. But how will it affect orthopedics? 

Three orthopedic surgeons connected with Becker's to answer, "How will the overall physician shortage affect the orthopedic industry?"

Ask Orthopedic Surgeons is a weekly series of questions posed to surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting orthopedic care. We invite all orthopedic surgeon and specialist responses.

Next question: Do you feel fairly compensated as an orthopedic surgeon? 

Please send responses to Riz Hatton at by 5 p.m. CST Thursday, Feb. 1.

Note: These responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Frank Liporace, MD. Orthopedic Surgeon and Senior Vice President of Musculoskeletal Services for RWJBarnabas Health's Northern Region (West Orange): The orthopedic field is gearing up for some changes due to a projected physician shortage. This could mean more patients looking for orthopedic services and, unfortunately, longer delays for them to acquire care. The orthopedic surgery residency programs at Jersey City (N.J.) Medical Center and Monmouth (N.J) Medical Center are on a mission: shaping the future of orthopedic surgeons. They're bridging the gap, ensuring excellent care remains a constant. These programs, initiated in 2015 and 1945, respectively, produce outstanding orthopedic surgeons who are committed to excellence, compassion, and the advancement of medical education. By training the highest quality residents, these programs contribute to the future workforce of orthopedic surgeons, helping to mitigate the effects of the anticipated shortage in the field.

Philip Louie, MD. Spine Surgeon at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (Tacoma, Wash.): With the ongoing crisis of physician shortages without obvious solutions in the future, more patients will experience delays in access to basic orthopedic care, which is a critical component to musculoskeletal outcomes and reducing overall healthcare costs.

This shortage will slowly trickle down toward a public health crisis that will leave many musculoskeletal injuries without the timely and proper care that is necessary. These types of shortages and poor access to care have been unfortunately common in rural and underserved areas, but we may start to observe these struggles in larger urban areas as well. Populations that are often marginalized due to various geographic barriers and socioeconomic disparities will be further marginalized over time, as access to orthopedic care will be further restricted. 

When people are met with persistent barriers to their orthopedic care, emergency treatment, once considered a last resort, becomes a necessary means of access to care. The costs will be driven up for both patients and the healthcare system as a whole. Not only is this poor utilization of healthcare resources, it will further drive unnecessary costs in an orthopedic landscape that is already financially struggling.

Grant Shifflett, MD. Spine Surgeon at DISC Sports & Spine Center (Newport Beach, Calif.): It will be interesting to see how the anticipated physician shortage plays out in the orthopedic industry. As a practitioner in a highly competitive and desirable geographic region, we have a surplus of orthopedists and will be unphased by this anticipated shortage. However, in many parts of the country, the demand for surgeons cannot adequately be met with the supply.

The shortages will persist in much of the country until one of the following occurs: either some constraints on practice locations post-fellowship are made, or increased incentives for underserved populations are provided. Another potential solution would be increased medical tourism, providing patients with the option of travel through their insurance to seek highly qualified specialists in centers of excellence.

Given the dysfunction and disrepair of our current medical system, though, we'll likely just see the "powers that be" mandate an increase in orthopedic physicians, potentially accepting diminished criteria for acceptance to meet this need and, ultimately, the result being patients still unable to have access to high-quality care.

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