Academic Medicine

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Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000019

The Changing Meaning of a Health Care Workforce

Howell, Joel D. MD, PhD

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In this commentary, the author describes how the meaning of the health care workforce has changed, focusing on the physician workforce. Some questions have been asked consistently over the years: How many should we have? What type? Where should they work? In 1830 there were no licensing laws, and every literate American could be a member of the health care workforce by following detailed instructions in a popular handbook. Subsequent years saw the initiation of state licensing laws and the reform of medical education. Medical specialties and specialty boards were created, although it was not until after World War II that the dominance of the general practitioner gave way to specialists. For over a century, estimates of physician supply have swung between “too many” and “too few.” Rural and economically disadvantaged communities have long struggled with access to health care providers. The author also identifies some issues that have only been considered fairly recently, such as the ethnic and gender diversity of the workforce. Wars have played a major role in changing ideas about the workforce, often in ways that long outlast the actual dates of the conflict. The meaning of the health care workforce has always been deeply embedded in a specific social, political, and economic context.

© 2013 by the Association of American Medical Colleges


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