The 132-year-old Southern Baptist medical ministry is facing serious pressures because of rising medical costs and an acute shortage of medical missionaries.

Dr. Franklin T. Fowler, medical consultant for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, said the personnel shortage is the greatest and most urgent problem. He said 29 physicians and an equal number of nurses are needed immediately.

Baptist medical missionaries are the only doctors in their areas in many of the 21 countries where the denomination maintains medical missions.

The severe personnel shortage has forced missionary physicians in some countries to remain on duty or on call for months at a time.

Baptist data reveals that the resignation rate for mission doctors is about twice the resignation rate of the total missionary force - 8 percent versus 4 percent.

Various reasons for the drop in the number of medical missionaries were cited. They included uncertainty about financial support of a particular ministry, family-related needs to leave the mission field, inability to adjust to life in the field, and the pressures of the "mass medicine" they encounter in the mission.

"In most mission hospitals, the lines of people needing care stretch on and on," a Baptist spokesman said. "Seeing this many patients allows little time for detailed medical histories or more than a minimum examination, even though medical missionaries often work 14 to 16-hour days."