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More Physician Temps Needed For Doctor Shortage

The use of temporary physicians is rising, filling in until permanent physicians can be hired amid the ongoing shortage of doctors nationwide, a locum tenens firm has found. The company estimates between 30,000 and 40,000 physicians worked on a locum tenens basis in 2010.

The survey, by Staff Care, polled hospital and medical group managers about their use of locum tenens. Eighty-five percent said their facilities had used temporary physicians sometime in 2010, up from 72 percent in 2009.

Psychiatrists and other behavioral health specialists were the most sought-after specialty (22 percent of all requests), followed by primary care physicians, defined as family physicians, general internists and pediatricians (20 percent) and internal medicine subspecialists (12 percent). Hospitalists were 9 percent.

According to the survey, the primary reason cited by 63 percent of healthcare facilities was to fill a position until a permanent physician could be found. Forty-six percent of healthcare facilities now use locum tenens physicians to fill in for physicians who have left the area, compared to 22 percent in 2009. Fourteen percent use locum tenens doctors to either help meet rising patient demand for medical services or to fill in during peak times, such as flu season. Fifty-three percent use locum tenens physicians to fill in for physicians who are on vacation, ill or for other absences.

Most locum tenens physicians plan to stick with temporary practice in the short-term, the company noted. Sixty percent said they plan to practice on a locum tenens basis for more than three years, 28 percent for one to three years and 12 percent for less than a year.

Freedom trumps pay, the company noted, as 82 percent cited flexibility as a benefit, compared to 16 percent who identified pay as a benefit. Other reasons cited for working as a locum tenens include absence of medical politics (48 percent), travel (44 percent), professional development (21 percent) and searching for permanent practice (20 percent).

The locum tenens option is important to maintaining physician supply, the company concluded, because during a time of physician shortages it allows doctors who might be considering full retirement to remain active in medicine.

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

The FDA Lacks The Resources To Ensure The Safety Of America’s Food Supply

Tommy Thompson

The recent peanut butter/salmonella outbreak offers another opportunity to reflect on the underlying budget crisis and staff shortage at the Food and Drug Administration. I interviewed Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, about what the peanut butter debacle tells us about the FDA inspections of our food supply.

You may listen to our conversation by clicking on the play button, or read a summary below. Enjoy!

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Dr. Val: Has this recent outbreak influenced how the FDA tracks food ingredients?

Thompson: No it hasn’t. We have a serious food problem in America because the FDA is understaffed. There have been too many outbreaks of food poisoning – everything from listeria on cucumbers and onions to salmonella infections from ice cream and peanut butter. Approximately 82 million people experience an episode of food poisoning each year, 350,000 of them require treatment in a hospital and 8,000 die. People don’t seem to realize what a large problem food poisoning is until there is a new outbreak. The recent peanut butter contamination affected between 700-800 different food products.

Americans need to realize that the FDA is severely understaffed and cannot do the inspections necessary to protect all of our food. I’ve been harping about this for a long time. When I was Secretary of HHS I was able to increase the number of inspectors by 100%, but since I left the funding was decreased and the numbers of inspectors is back to the level when I started.

There are 64,000 venues that the FDA has to inspect, and there are only 700 inspectors. It is geographically and mathematically impossible to do all the inspections. The FDA is responsible for inspecting 80% of our food supply while the department of agriculture does the rest. The department of agriculture has 7000 employees and 6000 venues that they have to inspect. Just compare the resource differential between the FDA and the department of agriculture and you see the serious constraints under which the FDA operates.

The department of agriculture inspects every meat processing factory every day. But an FDA inspector may get to a food processing plant only once every 6 or 7 years.

Dr. Val: Wow, that’s enlightening and also terrifying at the same time.

Thompson: Yes, it really is. We inspect less than 1% of the food coming into America. The amount of imported food continues to increase as the number of inspectors decreases. We have some serious problems with our food supply and it’s about time that congress recognized this.

The FDA is doing the best job they can, and yet they are regularly criticized by the media. When you consider their limitations, they’re doing a heck of a good job with the resources they have.

Dr. Val: So what do we need to do to improve this situation?

Thompson: The FDA needs a larger budget, we need to get more inspectors out there, we need updated testing technology, but we also need a more modern law that would require food processing plants to file an affidavit with the FDA to ensure that their food is safe. There’s very little supervision of these companies.

Dr. Val: Is there anything the public can do to petition the government to increase funding to the FDA so they can inspect our food properly?

Thompson:  There’s a coalition to improve the quality of food inspections at FDA and I’m a part of that. There are people in congress who are working on introducing legislation to provide the FDA the resources necessary to hire more inspectors, and to require affidavits of safety from food processing plants.

Dr. Val: Do you think Dr. Joshua Sharfstein will become the new FDA commissioner?

Thompson: Sharfstein is being considered for a position at FDA, whether it’s commissioner, assistant commissioner, or chief of staff I don’t know.

Dr. Val: Do you have any advice for the new FDA commissioner, whoever it is?

Thompson: Yes. In addition to lobbying for increased funding to support more inspector positions, he or she should consider appointing a special commissioner of food that would report directly to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The new FDA commissioner should focus on getting medicines and new drugs to market. In 2008 we had fewer new drugs get to market than any year since 1981. The entire FDA is overworked, the responsibilities are great, and congress meddles too much in their affairs, though that may change now that the democrats control both houses and the presidency.

The staff at FDA are becoming demoralized because every time they make a decision someone in congress criticizes them for it. Then they become reluctant to make decisions at all.

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