So, as you know, I recently attended the 2014 CAP Annual Meeting in Chicago. In addition to meeting with residents, I also had many interesting conversations and meals with non-trainees. I met new-in-practice pathologists who had completed two or three fellowships who were unemployed and were at the meeting networking with potential job prospects. I met veteran pathologists who were working in part-time or locums tenens positions while searching for a more permanent position. And finally, I met pathologists who were currently working but who told me that over the years, the amount of work that they have had to do for the same or less pay had significantly increased.
These conversations left me wondering how we can address this issue. How do the reports that this country would see an impending shortage of pathologists in the near future fit in with these first-hand stories? Most, if not all, of the reports about a pathology workforce shortage were based, at least partially, on survey data. This can be influenced by selection bias, volunteer bias, or both depending on how the survey was conducted. Also the modeling applied, at best, can only make estimates about future occurrences based on the data available now. It cannot take into account unforeseeable game changers (eg – Affordable Care Act) that may significantly alter the practice of medicine compared to the practice today. I’m not saying that we should discount these reports, just that we should be aware of how to critically analyze the conclusions from them.
I do believe that there is a pathologist shortage in terms of misdistribution geographically and subspecialty-wise, but this is a trend that holds true for most medical specialties. We may not have enough pathologists per person (aka a shortage) in this country but we definitely have a surplus in many urban settings where it may be more popular to practice. Certain popular and well-paying subspecialties, like dermatopathology, could have a surplus but don’t because the number of fellowship positions are limited. But other popular subspecialties like hematopathology seem to be saturated in terms of positions near cities that are popular to live in from my anecdotal experience.
And even though an impending shortage is always the battle cry to increase the number of residency spots, our community is polarized on this issue. Some residents and pathologists I’ve spoken with feel that we should, like other specialties have done in the past, limit the number of residency positions we have. Without more data, I can’t really say which side of the argument I agree with but I do acknowledge that we are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now about how we train our residents and what roles pathologists should fill (eg – molecular diagnostics) will affect our future, patients’ futures, and our profession’s future.
But regardless, the problem does remain that the job market currently seems tight and that pathologists have had to perform more work than they have had to in the past. So, what is your take on the situation and your suggestions for a possible solution? And how can we incentivize to address misdistribution of pathologists to address a shortage in more underserved areas?
-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.