1 in 5 surgeons plans to retire early due to physical toll, survey finds

At the same time that the country faces a predicted shortage of physicians, one in five surgeons plan to retire early because of the physical toll of their work, a new survey reveals.

Nearly 20% of surgeons in the U.S. think they may need to retire early due to the physical problems that result from performing laparoscopic surgery, a survey commissioned by CMR Surgical finds. CMR Surgical, a British medical device company, has developed a robotic system for laparoscopic or minimal access surgery.

That’s the same percentage as surgeons in the U.K. and similar to the 15% of surgeons surveyed in Germany contemplating early retirement from their chosen profession.

Surgeons say they may retire early because of back and other work-related injuries, news that is not good as the country already faces a physician shortage. Fewer surgeons could lead to a shortage of experienced physicians and longer wait times for patients.

The survey polled more than 450 general, gynecological and colorectal surgeons in Europe and the U.S. who regularly perform laparoscopic surgery. Turns out while laparoscopic surgery is good for patients, letting them recover more quickly and with less pain, it is taking a toll on doctors.

Although increasingly popular, surgeons performing laparoscopic procedures often have to contort themselves into awkward positions for hours at a time, causing long-term pain and muscle strains, according to the report.

RELATED: Disruptive docs make more mistakes in the operating room

The survey found approximately three in four surgeons in the United Kingdom (76%) have experienced back pain while performing laparoscopic surgery. Some 78% of surgeons in the U.S. and 61% of surgeons in Germany have experienced muscular or back pain. The most common areas of discomfort are the back, neck and shoulders for surgeons.

The survey found 16% of surgeons in the United Kingdom, 13% of surgeons in the U.S, and 10% of surgeons in Germany, have had to consult with a healthcare professional due to musculoskeletal injuries. While some are looking at early retirement, surgeons say experience matters and 37% of United Kingdom surgeons believe they have reached the peak of their operating ability after 50.

In a report released earlier this year, the Association of American Medical Colleges said the U.S. will see a shortage of up to 122,000 physicians by 2032. Among specialists, the report projected a shortage of between 14,300 and 23,400 surgeons.

A 2018 study published in the journal Surgery estimated that by 2050 there will be a deficit of over 7,000 general surgeons in the U.S.

It’s time the healthcare industry starts paying attention to the problem, said Adrian Park, M.D., chairman of the department of surgery at Anne Arundel Health System in Maryland and a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in an interview with FierceHealthcare.

RELATED: Why is healthcare so expensive? This Johns Hopkins surgeon might have the answers

Park, who wasn’t involved in this particular survey, has written on and speaks about the work-related injuries and pain surgeons are battling, calling it an “impending epidemic.” When he speaks to fellow surgeons, he gets a passionate, visceral response. Some tell him they had to cut back their surgical schedules because of their pain. Some, for instance, cut the number of days they operate or the number of surgeries they perform each day.

“This is really no longer a surgeons’ issue,” he said. The data is clear that while the workload of surgeons is increasing, the workforce is decreasing or static at best, he said. “To meet this need, the last thing society as a whole can afford is shortened surgical careers. It takes an awful lot of time and expense to train a surgeon.”

It’s a problem he thinks is not recognized enough. “I don’t think the public is aware of it. I don’t think healthcare policymakers are aware of it. I don’t think hospital leaders, by and large, are aware of it as much as they need to be,” he said.

Just as they are paying attention to physician burnout and wellness, hospital leaders need to pay attention to the physical toll on surgeons, he said.

There are both high-tech and low-tech solutions, such as ergonomically designed surgical environments and better designed robotic systems, he said. Education is needed for doctors, nurses and techs on ergonomic risk factors and the need for surgeons to take a quick stretching break every 30 to 40 minutes during operations to perform some exercises to prevent injuries.