Dispatches > In Brief

In Brief

"In Brief" Continued...

Issue: "Scorched-earth politics," Sept. 7, 2002

Code blue

Baby boomers are getting older, but so are heart surgeons. Will there be enough heart surgeons to treat aging boomers? The Society of Thoracic Surgeons last month issued a glum warning, reporting that there aren't enough new residents available to replace those who are retiring.

The report cites Medicare red tape, liability insurance, job stress, and massive student-loan debts as problems that drive qualified doctors away from the field. Young heart surgeons face at least seven years of residency training. They start practice in their mid-30s facing 60- to 80-hour weeks while trying to fight off massive student-loan debt.

Evidence of a looming shortage comes from the National Residency Matching Program, which connects medical school graduates to training programs. It reports that 21 out of 144 positions offered in cardiothoracic surgery went vacant this year. Competition for open slots has also fallen from 197 in 1993 to 145 this year.

This shortage is part of a trend facing the entire medical profession, according to Dr. Thomas Russell, executive director of the American College of Surgeons: "The potential impact on access to quality care for surgical patients of the future could be devastating if something is not done to correct the situation."

A study published last March in the journal Archives of Surgery found the number of applicants to general surgery programs fell 30 percent in the past nine years. More students are choosing specialties with shorter training periods.

Pain relief but no munchies: Marijuana substitute found

Biochemist Sumner Burstein says he's found a solution to the medical marijuana debate. He and fellow researchers developed a new drug that provides the pain relief attributed to medical marijuana without the intoxication. Researchers have tried the experimental compound on animals with positive results. If it works on humans, it would remove one respectable political argument from the drug legalization movement.

The synthetic drug, known as ajulemic acid, is currently being tested on human volunteers. "The indications so far are that it's safe and effective," said Dr. Burstein, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. If the government approves ajulemic acid, doctors will likely prescribe it to arthritis patients and others suffering from chronic pain. Researchers want to see if it help victims of multiple sclerosis, cancer, and chemical-gas attacks.

Federal law bans cultivating, possessing, or distributing marijuana for any purpose. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out state laws allowing medicinal marijuana in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Critics claim such laws were Trojan horses intended to generate popular support for drug legalization. A legal, nonpsychoactive form of the drug could freeze medical demand for marijuana.

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