There is a widely believed, but largely silly, view that rising inequality is the result of technology and globalization. NPR gave us an illustration of how silly this view is in a segment on plans in California to reduce the duration of medical school from four years to three years.

The ostensible motivation was to help address a shortage of primary care physicians. The reason why the piece is relevant to the larger issue of inequality is that it never once mentioned the possibility of bringing in more doctors from other countries. Doctors in the United States earn on average twice what their counterparts do in other wealthy countries. Since we have no notable differences in health outcomes, the implication would be that our doctors are of no better quality on average than those in Europe and Canada.

This would suggest that there is a vast pool of doctors who could benefit from coming to the United States and working for more money than they would receive in their home country. The pool of potential doctors is even larger if we include doctors from developing countries who could be required to train to U.S. standards. To ensure that developing countries benefit as well, we could repatriate tax revenue from expatriate doctors so they can train two or three doctors for everyone that comes here. (If you plan to complain that this policy hurts developing countries read the last sentence as many times as necessary to understand it.)

What is striking is that the issue of bringing in more doctors from other countries never got mentioned in this piece or in other new stories that raise the question of doctor shortages. Bringing in immigrant workers is raised all the time in other contexts such as alleged shortages of nurses, STEM workers, and farm workers.

The fact that immigration is not discussed in the context of a doctor shortage has nothing to do with inevitable processes of globalization or technology. It has to do with the power of doctors relative to other workers. Doctors are able to prevent their wages from being driven down by foreign competition; other workers have less power. It really is that simple.

 

Addendum: The above comment is not entirely fair to NPR. Planet Money once had a segment in which I discussed the possibility of bringing in more foreign doctors as a way of saving money on health care.

 

Second Addendum:

I see from comments that folks have noted the number of residency slots as the source of the limit on the supply of doctors. There are two points to be made on this. First, this rule is a textbook protectionist restriction. The requirement that people have to do a residency in the United States did not come down from the heavens, it was imposed as a way to restrict the number of doctors.

This gets us to the second point. The number of slots was cut back in 1997 at the insistence of the A.M.A. and other doctors' organizations because they said there were too many doctors and it was driving down their pay. So the pieces of the puzzle all fit together easily.

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