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The Path to Cures Requires Physician Scientists

July 1, 2015

After four years of medical school and five years of residency training, a young doctor is at a crucial decision point in her career. She wants to combine her passion for treating patients with her love of medical research. She is exactly the kind of person we need if we are going to discover the next generation of cures, and she is the doctor I want to treat my family members when they face a devastating diagnosis. But with the prospect of a one in 10 chance of getting federal funding for her research, she may consider giving up her dream of becoming a physician scientist. If she does, who knows what cures or treatments will never reach patients? 

Sustained growth in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding is essential for continued progress in medical research—progress that has resulted in astonishing breakthroughs. Research funded by the NIH has contributed to nearly every medical treatment, diagnostic tool, and medical device developed in modern history. We are all enjoying longer, healthier lives because of the federal government’s support for this critical research. NIH research has contributed to a 70 percent reduction in the death rates for coronary heart disease and stroke, a 40 percent decline in infant mortality over the past 20 years, and a 30 percent decrease in chronic disability among seniors. 

Over the past decade, the NIH budget has lost more than 20 percent of its purchasing power after inflation because of a federal funding squeeze. As a result, many promising research studies may never be pursued. And, equally troubling for the future of medical research, a generation of aspiring physician scientists is being discouraged. Increasingly, when young researchers see such slim chances of getting federal funding for their work, they are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to devote the extra years of training and expense necessary to become scientists. 

We all have to deal with budget realities in our lives. But federal support for medical research needs to be viewed as a priority in the future. After years of nearly flat funding for medical research, Congress needs to provide predictable funding increases for the NIH if we’re to build on research opportunities that could change the lives of tomorrow’s patients

Recently, House Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) worked across the aisle to draft the 21st Century Cures Act(H.R. 6). Provisions in the measure would reauthorize the NIH for three years at funding levels that represent an increase of $1.5 billion per year and provide $10 billion over the next five years in mandatory funding through an NIH Innovation Fund. This infusion of funding will help revitalize and rebuild our nation’s biomedical research capacity. The AAMC is proud to support this important effort, and House passage would be a great start toward hope for millions.

The cures and treatments that result from additional funding can only happen if we continue to excite and inspire the next generation of physicians to pursue careers in medical research. This is especially important because the pool of physician scientists—indeed, all physicians—is increasingly short of what it needs to be. New physician workforce projections by IHS Inc. show a shortage of as many as 90,000 physicians by 2025. Of that number, between 28,000 and 63,000 will be specialists—the ones most likely to make scientific research their life’s calling.

Continued flat funding for the NIH puts at risk an entire generation of U.S. scientists, and if we lose them, they won’t come back. This will compromise the future of medical research and put hope of cures and treatments on hold for millions of America’s patients.

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About the Author

Atul Grover, MD, PhD AAMC Executive Vice President

Atul Grover, MD, PhD
AAMC Executive Vice President

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For More Information

Peters Willson
Sr. Specialist, Policy and Constituency Issues
Telephone: 202-862-6029