To Overcome Doctor Shortage, Get Rid of Obstacles to Primary Care

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06/02/2022

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Experts predict that the U.S. will be short between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034. For many, those numbers may seem too abstract to fathom or the year too far away to ponder given more immediate concerns.

But one small-town doctor knows what those numbers mean to patients, because he’s starting to see it in the worry in their faces and the concern in their voices.

“I've been practicing here for 20-plus years and in the past month, I've had half a dozen inquiries from people asking: ‘Are you still planning on staying? Are you going to retire? Are you getting to that retirement age?’” said AMA member Noel Deep, MD, a past president of the Wisconsin Medical Society and an internist in Antigo, Wisconsin, a town of about 7,800 people in the northeast corner of the state.

Dr. Deep said that he and his wife, AMA member Lakshmi Deep, MD, are the only two internists in the area.

“You can see that worry” in patients’ faces, he said, “They think that, if we are gone, then they won't find any replacements at all. So that is a worry that plagues us.”

It is not an unreasonable concern for his community, where residents have already felt the impact of the physician shortage in rural America.

“We had one psychiatrist in the area who retired two years ago,” Dr. Deep said. “We have not been able to replace her.”

The nation faces a projected shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians within 12 years, according to The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections From 2019 to 2034 (PDF), a report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

When paired with U.S. Census data, the projections become particularly grim, according to another small-town physician and AMA member Sterling Ransone Jr., MD. He practices family medicine in Deltaville, Virginia, a community of about 2,000 residents.

“By 2032, the U.S. population’s going to grow by about 10%, but those of us who are age 65 or older, we’re going to grow by about 47%,” said Dr. Ransone, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and a member of the AMA Scope of Practice Partnership’s advisory committee.

“By that same year, 2032, probably about one-third of active physicians are going to be over age 65, so our physicians—we’re aging as well,” he added.

Primary care’s value to a community was documented in a 2019 JAMA Internal Medicine study showing that “greater primary care physician supply was associated with lower mortality.”

“The largest decreases in cause-specific mortality associated with increased primary care physician density were for cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory tract disease, conditions with strong evidence of amenability to primary care management or with delayed mortality conditional on early screening through primary care,” the study says.

Despite these proven benefits, “per capita supply decreased between 2005 and 2015,” wrote the study’s authors.

This incongruity was also noted by researchers at the AAFP’s Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care in its 2020 publication, The State of Primary Care in the United States: A Chartbook of Facts and Statistics (PDF).

“Despite renewed interest in strengthening primary care in the United States in recent years, there remains an inadequate understanding of what primary care is and does, insufficient investment in its infrastructure and growth, inadequacy in its workforce numbers and distribution, and inefficient coordination with other sectors,” the chartbook says.

The AMA House of Delegates has adopted a 25-point comprehensive policy that identified principles of and action to address the nation’s primary care labor force.

“Our patients require a sufficient, well-trained supply of primary care physicians ... to meet the nation’s current and projected demand for health care services,” says the policy, which specifies family physicians, general internists and pediatricians, and ob-gyns as primary care doctors.

Other AMA policies supporting primary care include:

  • “Access to Primary Care Services.”
  • “Medicaid Primary Care Payment Increases.”
  • “Access to Specialty Care.”
  • “Primary Care Physicians in Underserved Areas.”

Drs. Deep and Ransone will be attending the 2022 AMA Annual Meeting in Chicago this month. Dr. Deep will be part of the American College of Physicians’ delegation, and Dr. Ransone is in the AAFP’s delegation.

Medical school graduates typically finish school with about $200,000 in medical student-loan debt, which is often seen as an influential factor in specialty choice. This was detailed in an AMA letter (PDF) to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, EdD, MS, last September.

“One study indicated that 31% of medical students intended to pursue primary care in their first year of medical school, but due to debt and expected income, decided to switch to a higher-paying specialty by the end of their fourth year,” wrote AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD.

According to AMA policy, “the costs of medical education should never be a barrier to the pursuit of a career in medicine nor to the decision to practice in a given specialty.”

The AMA fights to ease young doctors’ financial burdens that contribute to physician shortages in areas underserved by limited access to health care.

This includes supporting the bipartisan “Resident Education Deferred Interest Act” that would allow borrowers to qualify for interest-free deferment on student loans while serving in a medical or dental internship or residency program. Learn about how Congress can save resident physicians $12,000 a year.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” Dr. Deep said, referring to the medical student-loan debt burdens. “Some programs will provide loan forgiveness if they work in a rural or underserved area, but you’d probably make a lot more in other specialties and be able to pay off that debt sooner.”

For his part, Dr. Ransone worries that the discussion of debt turning young doctors away from primary care could be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

“The debt issue definitely is one that's out there, but I think that, to a certain extent, it's overplayed,” Dr. Ransone said. “As a family medicine physician, I'm very well paid for my community. That said, I am paid significantly less than other specialties with similar lengths of training and expertise.

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