Nation Experiencing Shortage Of Primary-Care Physicians

By CityTownInfo.com Staff
June 22, 2009

The country is suffering from a primary-care doctor shortage which will very likely get worse, and it will take years before efforts to fix the problem yield any substantial positive results.

The Washington Post reports that according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the shortage of family doctors is expected to climb to 40,000 in a little more than a decade. The Association of American Medical Colleges adds that the doctor shortage may grow to nearly 125,000 by 2025, and may be markedly worse if universal health coverage is accepted--thereby significantly increasing demand for primary-care physicians.

Experts note that fixing the problem will require action to lure more medical students into the field, but there are no easy solutions. "You're talking about an eight- to 12-year period to fix the problem," said Robert L. Phillips Jr., director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, part of the American Academy of Family Physicians, who was quoted in The Post.

The primary-care physician shortage is becoming more evident as increasing numbers of patients often encounter difficulty finding a doctor, and then wait weeks for an appointment and sit for hours in waiting rooms. Time reports on another consequence of the doctor shortage: overcrowded emergency rooms filled with patients who have no primary-care doctors or are unable to schedule an appointment with one.

Part of the reason for the shortage is because average salaries for family practitioners are the lowest of any medical specialty. The New York Times notes that according to a 2008 survey of physician salaries by the American Medical Group Association, the average annual pay for primary-care doctors is $201,555, compared to $356,166 for general surgeons and $614,536 for neurological surgeons.

"Medical school loans can be so high, you need to be a specialist to pay them back," explained Dr. Jose Batlle, a primary-care doctor who was quoted by The Times. "But our country doesn't need yet another sleep apnea specialist."

The Post notes that while half of the nation's doctors worked in primary care 50 years ago, 70 percent of physicians today work in higher-paid specialties, a point that the Obama administration hopes to address. Some of Obama's proposals include raising pay for primary-care doctors and expanding the National Health Service Corps, which helps pay tuition for medical students in return for two to four years of service in communities that don't have enough doctors. The administration has also set aside $2 billion for expanding community health services.

"We need to rethink the cost of medical education and do more to reward medical students who choose a career as a primary-care physician," President Obama noted in a speech to the American Medical Association last week.

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