In 2007, 33 percent of thoracic surgery fellowship positions went unfilled, the researchers reported. In addition, they said that residents in training in cardiothoracic surgery were having difficulty finding employment after completing five years of general surgery training and two years of a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship.
They speculated that this could be, at least in part, the result of a decrease in the number of people having heart bypass surgery, which is the most frequent operation done by cardiothoracic surgeons. The number of heart bypass surgeries fell 28 percent between 1997 and 2004, the study reported.
But over the same period, the use of stents increased 121 percent, it said. That procedure is usually done by cardiologists, not cardiothoracic surgeons.
"As we get better at identifying cardiac and pulmonary diseases earlier on and have better treatments for those diseases, you want to make sure you are adequately able to ... have the most qualified professionals treating those patients," Grover said.
Even if the number of people entering the cardiothoracic field were to increase, he said, there still would be a shortage in coming decades because of the expected increase in the over-65 population and the fact that it takes 10 years to train a cardiothoracic surgeon.
This shortage could result in significant waiting times before people get needed surgery and possibly in unnecessary complications and deaths, he said.
The expected shortage of surgeons comes at a time when cardiologists could also be in short supply, the study reported.
Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that a shortage of cardiothoracic surgeons could, indeed, create problems.
"The findings that the number of active cardiothoraci
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