Addressing the U.S. Physician Shortage

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Addressing the U.S. Physician Shortage

The shortage of physicians in the United States is not a new concern, but it has taken on new urgency with passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Also known as “ObamaCare,“ the new law is expected to add a staggering 30 to 40 million more Americans to the healthcare patient pool.

Even prior to ObamaCare, the gap between the number of patients and the number of doctors needed to serve them was already widening. For one thing, the large population of Baby Boomers approaching retirement includes many aging doctors who will gradually drop out of the medical system over the next 20 years, just as 65 million Boomer retirees will require greater care.

At the same time, the number of new doctors replacing the retiring ones has been severely limited, due in large part to a 1997 cap the federal government placed on post-graduate resident positions at training hospitals across the country.1 In fact, the graduate medical education fund that pays much of the salaries of medical residents may be subject to as much as a 50 percent cut, which would further pinch the nation’s pipeline of new doctors.

But the most glaring and worrisome factor is the tens of millions of new patients who will become eligible for coverage on January 1, 2014, when ObamaCare kicks in. Everyone agrees that this will be a dramatic game changer for doctors and patients alike. What remains unclear, though, is precisely how and in what ways things will change.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the demand for physicians in 2016 will total 916,000, compared to an estimated 785,400 that will be available. This gap of 130,600 doctors represents a whopping 15 percent of projected demand.

Meanwhile, the number of primary care or family physicians—the ones most needed amid the surge of new patients—has been dropping steadily since 1978, with only a slight uptick during the last three years. The bottom line is that we need a lot more doctors soon, particularly primary-care physicians, and not just in large cities but also in rural areas where an already noticeable shortage of them is expected to get worse as demand for their services spikes.

In fact, some observers think the physician shortage is largely due to a lack of primary-care doctors. According to another estimate by the AAMC, although 17,364 medical students graduated in 2011, not enough of them chose primary care...

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