Thursday, March 15, 2012

Physician Shortage

The new federal health-care law has raised the stakes for hospitals and medical schools that are already scrambling to train more doctors. Experts speculate that there won't be enough doctors to treat the millions of people newly insured under the law. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, at current graduation and training rates, the nation could face a shortage of as many as 150,000 doctors in the next 15 years. That shortfall is predicted despite a push by teaching hospitals and medical schools to boost the number of U.S. doctors, which now totals about 954,000. The greatest demand will be for primary-care physicians. The U.S. has 352,908 primary-care doctors now, and the college association estimates that 45,000 more will be needed by 2020. But the number of medical-school students entering family medicine fell more than a quarter between 2002 and 2007.

I agree that this problem of a physician shortage must be addressed in a manner that is both economically feasible and efficient. I think the new health-care law’s 10% Medicare pay boost for primary-care doctors will incentivize people to enter the medical field. Additionally, a number of new medical schools have opened around the country. This step will also help address the current crisis. Furthermore, medical schools should aim to increase their acceptance rates. Medical colleges and hospitals will also face the problem of the shortage of medical resident positions. The residency is the minimum three-year period when medical-school graduates train in hospitals and clinics. According to the AAMC, there are about 110,000 resident positions in the U.S., and hospitals rely heavily on Medicare funding to pay for these slots. In 1997, Congress imposed a cap on funding for medical residencies, which hospitals say has increasingly hurt their ability to expand the number of positions. Doctors' groups and medical schools had hoped that the new health-care law, passed in March, would increase the number of funded residency slots, but such a provision didn't make it into the final bill. Including such a provision will allow more vacancies for residency positions, further ameliorating the situation. All these measures will collectively increase the number of people entering the medical field, helping to relieve the stress on the current health system, which is experiencing a shortage of physicians.

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