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Wanted: General Surgeons in Rural Regions

Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media, May 25, 2011

A dearth of specialists and a generation of surgeons approaching retirement age are together, a growing cause for concern in some rural regions.

There's a general surgery crisis in rural America, suggest preliminary research findings from the Washington-Wyoming-Alaska-Montana-Idaho (WWAMI) Rural Health Research Center.

The problem is twofold. First, although the number of general surgeons is declining around the country, the shortage is more acutely felt in rural areas.

"In urban areas, much of that decline can be offset with general surgery subspecialists," Mark Doescher, MD, MSPH, director of the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center, said in an interview. "But in rural areas where you don't have the population density to support the specialists, that impact becomes much more significant because there isn't an easy way to offset some of those services."

Moreover, the research points to a lack of training among newly minted general surgeons in obstetrics/gynecology and orthopedics. According to Doescher, they're less likely to do "in-a-pinch" c-sections and other basic procedures that general surgeons a generation ago would have performed.

"We're producing general surgeons who are probably not comfortable practicing in rural environments based on the skill set they have," he says. "There needs to be a wakeup call that there is still a need for people with some general skill sets."

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