The Health & Healthcare Blog  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Shortage of Doctors Challenged Further By Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act is designed to provide affordable health care insurance for upwards of 70 million uninsured Americans. In addition, individuals and families will have choices through health insurance exchanges so they can choose insurance plans that meet their needs and their budgets. Most people would agree that's a good thing. Where many people are not agreeing, however, is just how physicians are going to be able to manage the increase of patients so insured Americans can actually get the health care they will finally have access to.

One of the problems is that there is already a shortage of primary care physicians. This is the family physician who is generally the first person patients see when they need medical attention. About 30 percent of U.S. physicians will be close to retirement age soon. In addition, many physicians experience longer days, lower pay, more administrative issues, and the states have put a limit on the amount of reimbursements physicians and hospitals receive in an effort to lower health care costs.

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the United States will have a decrease of 62,900 physicians by 2015. They also expect that by 2025 this number could double in size. Statistics from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) are equally alarming. They report a decrease of 51.8% of U.S. medical school students entering primary care programs since 1997. In fact, they predict a shortage of 40,000 primary care physicians by 2020. More students are going into specialty fields where they can make four or five times more money.

Couple this shortage with the tremendous increase expected in new insured Americans, along with an aging population--78 million Baby Boomers born from 1946 to 1964--and, as Barney Fife used to say to Andy Taylor, "Andy, we have ourselves a situation!" The solution is not as easy as just pouring new physicians into the system since the educational process for general practitioners takes at least ten years. So, what we may be looking at is longer wait times to see the family doctor and perhaps more people going to the emergency room for treatment, increasing medical costs. This is just what the Affordable Care Act wants to discourage.

It appears there is a serious trend that could pose a critical problem with the expected results from the Affordable Care Act in lowering health care costs. The issue needs to be addressed, and quickly. Currently, Congress is considering bills that could encourage more medical students to choose primary care, such as forgiveness of student loans. However, how the approaching increase of new patients effective January 2014, which has been referred to as a tsunami, is going to be managed remains to be seen.
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