Trans-Scientific Facts on Endless Trial

late doctor.jpgIs there a doctor shortage? Judging from the fact that physician salaries in the US are much higher than in comparable OECD countries, and given that leading trade associations and experts finally are calling for the training of more doctors, you might think so. Consider the Association of American Medical Colleges’ position, reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Instead of a glut, experts now fear the nation will face a serious shortage of physicians just when the aging population will need them most. That stunning about-face began in 2002 with an admission by the Association of American Medical Colleges and other groups that the surplus projections by health-care analysts and policy makers may have been a mistake. “It is now evident that those predictions were in error,” the association stated last year in a report that called on medical schools to increase their enrollments by 30 percent by 2015, both by expanding existing schools and creating new ones.

When I made that point at a health law workshop in 2005, some skeptics quickly piped up: “That’s contestable. Some people think there are way too many doctors.” Neighsayers pop up in the Chron. article, too:

David C. Goodman, a professor . . . at Dartmouth Medical School, [says that] “[r]ather than spending more resources on training more physicians, we should be focusing on building more-efficient delivery systems.” . . .Simply graduating more physicians will not ensure that care is getting to the people who need it most, the Dartmouth researchers argued. Most will probably crowd into regions of the country that already have large numbers of doctors, rather than moving to rural areas or inner cities where more medical care is needed. A larger number of graduating physicians also does not guarantee that the physician work force will be appropriately distributed among specialties.

As if the government couldn’t use its subtantial role in funding medical education to condition support on schools’ addressing such issues.

Such advocacy appears increasingly irresponsible as the US imports more and more medical personnel away from less developed countries (for example, “604 out of 871 medical officers trained in [Ghana] between 1993 and 2002 now practice overseas.”). Yet reporters, ever-eager to give the appearance of objectivity, continue “balancing” overwhelmingly dominant positions with half-baked contrarian challenges.

The endless debate over the physician shortage reminds me of a classic administrative law issue–the “trans-scientific fact,” or factual judgment infused with values and assumptions about future policy. Certainly the statement “there is a doctor shortage” can never be as objective as, say, “the earth orbits the sun.” But when someone challenges it in the face of massive consensus to the contrary, don’t they have the obligation to at least respond to the most basic arguments undermining their position? And don’t journalists have an obligation to ask these types of questions? Without that kind of substance, objectivity becomes mechanical, a mere tool for the “social construction of ignorance.”

Photo Credit: Flickr/sarcasmo, “Doctor Come Lately.”

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