Friday, January 9, 2009

Coming up short

Add this to the looming hurdles on the road to health reform: A recent Physicians’ Foundation survey of 12,000 doctors — mostly primary care physicians — found that half are planning to reduce their patient load or stop practicing altogether. Translation: When the health care doors open to the nation’s 45 million uninsured, will anyone be there to welcome them?

It’s a prediction complicated even more by a September study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed only 2 percent of graduating medical students are planning a career in general internal medicine, and an earlier Health Affairs study that predicted a primary care physician shortage of up to 44,000 by 2025.

The problem? Just take a look at Massachusetts. A couple years ago, the state passed sweeping health reform legislation resulting in near universal health coverage in the state. The downside? Not enough primary care doctors to see the hundreds of thousands of newly insured residents.

Pretty sobering. Primary care physicians, along with pediatricians, nurses and other primary care providers, are like the backbone of the health care delivery system, providing the regular check-ups, screenings, preventive advice and treatment that keep people healthy. Plus, the primary care provider is often the person that we learn to trust — something that can’t be overestimated when it comes to staying healthy.

So, what to do? Policy-makers at state and national levels have been working on legislation to beef up the primary care work force, with incentives such as loan repayments and scholarships for medical students and nurses willing to work in under-served communities. But with such massive shortages predicted, will that be enough?

Read more about the problem from AMA and let us know your thoughts.

P.S. Our country is also facing a major public health worker shortage. But since it’s the new year, I’ll stick to one piece of bad news at a time.

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