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Is the U.S. Really on the Verge of a Doctor Shortage?

A breakdown of factors contributing to the looming doctor shortage in the United States.

Is the U.S. Really on the Verge of a Doctor Shortage?

As any active news junkie will attest, there’s a legion of articles being written about the prospect of a serious doctor shortage here in the United States.

“Projections suggest that if nothing changes in the delivery of primary care, the United States may face a substantial shortage of primary care physicians and surpluses of nurse practitioners and physician assistants by 2025,” according to the researchers at RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

Here’s a look at three of the main factors advancing the crisis:

1) Age:   Steven Berk, M.D., the dean of the School of Medicine at Texas Tech University, says that "the doctor shortage is worse than most people think. The population is getting older, so there's a greater need for primary care physicians. At the same time, physicians are getting older, too, and they're retiring earlier.”  Between now and 2030, the number of Americans 65 and over will jump from 12.9 percent to 19 percent.

2) Shortfall of residencies: While it may seem like doctor burnout and a growing lack of interest in the medical profession are to blame, New York Times writer Catherine Rampell found that medical school enrollment is actually on the rise. “It turns out,” Rampell writes, “that the real bottleneck is at the post-med-school step.” Most residency programs are subsidized by the federal government, but the number of the subsidized positions was frozen by Congress in 1997.  On top of that, the distribution of the residencies is not regulated. Health policy professor at George Washington University Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan explains, “Under our current system, despite the fact that they’re getting huge amounts of federal money, there is no requirement that hospitals bring on residents in any kind of work-force-accountable way. So they’re doing what businesses do, by bringing in residents that are most valuable to them.”  Although primary care physicians are greatly needed, they aren’t greatly lucrative to hospitals, as compared to other areas of expertise like neurology.

3) Obamacare: It’s predicted that 25 million uninsured Americans will get health coverage by 2016 through the Affordable Care Act. That’s a lot more people in waiting rooms that often are already filled to capacity.  

Hang in there, though. Medical tourism isn't our only option, just yet.  An article in Stateline, the nonpartisan news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts reporting on state policy, claims that “some changes in the works, such as the use of new technologies and allowing mid-level medical providers to perform some functions usually reserved for doctors and dentists, should improve healthcare access in the long run.”

Do you think a doctor shortage is a serious problem in the United States?  Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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