'It's our obligation to do our part': Atlantic Health leader on combating surgeon shortages

Orthopedic

Nearly all healthcare systems and physicians are growing concerned about predicted workforce shortages, with a deficit of 5,050 orthopedic surgeons expected by 2030. 

In an effort to combat predicted shortages, surgeons at Morristown, N.J.-based Atlantic Health System have launched a five-year orthopedic residency program and a one-year adult reconstruction fellowship program. 

James Wittig, MD, chairman of the department of orthopedics at Morristown Medical Center and medical director of orthopedic oncology at Atlantic Health System, will lead the new residency program. He spoke with Becker's about his motivation behind starting and leading the program. 

Question: Are you concerned about a potential shortage of orthopedic surgeons in the coming years? 

Dr. James Wittig: Yes, absolutely I'm concerned about a shortage of orthopedic surgeons, which is part of the reason we initiated the residency program. We have an aging population in the U.S.; the baby boomers are active and are living longer. The good news is they're physically active and are exercising; the bad news is with that increased activity, they are wearing down their joints or sustaining injuries. Additionally, the total joint replacements that were performed in the past are likely to require revision surgeries. So without a doubt we're going to have a shortage, and we're doing our part to help change that.

Q: What can practices do to bolster retention and make orthopedics appealing to medical school students and residents? 

JW: Orthopedics is already very appealing to medical students and residents. In fact, we have twice as many candidates applying to orthopedics than there are spots available. I think it's an exciting and dynamic field, filled with highly innovative and sophisticated orthopedic programs which helps fuel future demands. Without a doubt, we have work to do when it comes to attracting women and minorities and medical students from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Again, this orthopedic residency program will help attract those individuals, and we can do our part to train them to be exceptional surgeons.

Q: What inspired you to add a residency and fellowship program? 

JW: A major goal for us is addressing the need to continue strengthening the future of Morristown Medical Center's nationally recognized orthopedic program. We are among the highest volume in the country, with top quality ratings. It was a no-brainer that we should be a teaching institution, instructing future orthopedic surgeons to be among the top in the U.S. In fact, in 2022 alone we performed over 11,500 orthopedic surgeries including close to 5,000 joint replacements, and nearly 500 orthopedic oncology cases, as well as nearly 1,700 spine surgeries. Not only is Morristown Medical Center one of the busiest in the country, but we are also fortunate to have top-notch, high-quality and outstanding surgeons practicing in the number one hospital in the state of New Jersey. We feel it's our obligation in many ways to do our part to teach the future orthopedic surgeons.

Q: How will you differentiate your program from others? 

JW: In addition to performing the high volume of procedures each year, we also cover nine different subspecialties — from the smallest to the most complex cases. Our residents will experience high variety and volume, but more importantly, high-quality repetition of procedures to master their skills, along with the tremendous breadth of orthopedics to make them masterful orthopedic surgeons. In addition, as one of only four hospitals in New Jersey designated as a level 1 regional trauma center, we are trained and equipped to treat the most serious orthopedic injuries.

Q: Orthopedics is well-known for its lack of diversity among physicians. Do you have any diversity initiatives for your residency program? 

JW: One of our priorities is to find a diverse mix of residents who have not only excelled in medical school, but who come to us with diverse backgrounds and interests. Our residents should reflect our communities, and one of our goals is to find diverse individuals who can bring their best authentic selves to our program.

Q: Are you incorporating any new orthopedic technologies (new AI, robots, etc.) in your program?

JW: We are an industry leader when it comes to bringing the most advanced, highly innovative technology for our patients. We have cutting-edge diagnostics and robotic equipment that result in faster recovery and outstanding outcomes for our patients. We performed the first Persona IQ smart knee implant in New Jersey — the world's first and only smart knee implant for total knee replacement surgery. Dr. John Dundon was the first in New Jersey and among the first in the world to perform the surgery. For patients who require spine surgery for severe scoliosis, we were the first in the nation to use a new type of portable CT scanner to guide surgery and actually "see" inside the spinal canal during surgery. We were also the first in the U.S. to use minimally invasive vertebral body tethering with advanced imaging for flexible scoliosis correction. We also were instrumental in pioneering surgical visualization technologies for orthopedic surgeries by using "mixed reality" technology to enhance outcomes in shoulder, hand and upper extremity surgeries.

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