Doctor Shortage Looms as Primary Care Loses Its Pull

Family medicine is what Doug Dreffer has wanted to practice ever since he was a second-year medical student 14 years ago at Ohio State. He listened to a different drummer from the majority of doctors entering a workforce in which subspecialties generally are considered more glamorous — and lucrative.

"All the sexy shows on TV are about ER work or surgeons," Dreffer says. "Grey's Anatomy. ER. Whatever it may be. There is no Marcus Welby on TV — 'cause it's just not cool."

Television aside, medical specialists cite an array of reasons why more medical students aspire to be Grey's Anatomy's McDreamy neurosurgeon Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), than wise family practitioner Marcus Welby, played by Robert Young in the 1970s series.

Longer days, lower pay, less prestige and more administrative headaches have turned doctors away in droves from family medicine, presumed to be the frontline for wellness and preventive-care programs that can help reduce health care costs.

The number of U.S. medical school students going into primary care has dropped 51.8% since 1997, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Considering it takes 10 to 11 years to educate a doctor, the drying up of the pipeline is a big concern to health-care experts. The AAFP is predicting a shortage of 40,000 family physicians in 2020, when the demand is expected to spike. The U.S. health care system has about 100,000 family physicians and will need 139,531 in 10 years. The current environment is attracting only half the number needed to meet the demand.

At the heart of the rising demands on primary-care physicians will be the 78 million Baby Boomers born from 1946 to 1964, who begin to turn 65 in 2011 and will require increasing medical care, and the current group of underserved patients.

If Congress passes health care legislation that extends insurance coverage to a significant part of the 47 million Americans who lack insurance, the need for more doctors is going to escalate.

The primary-care doctor — a category that includes family physicians, general internists and general pediatricians — has been held up as the gatekeeper in keeping people out of emergency rooms and controlling health care costs. But medical analysts say giving this limited pool of doctors responsibility for millions more patients is problematic.

"That tsunami wave (of patients) is going to be huge," says Bruce Bates, interim dean at University of New England's college of osteopathic medicine in Biddeford, Maine.

Finding a doctor will get increasingly difficult, waits for appointments will grow longer, and more sick people will turn to crowded emergency rooms, says Ted Epperly, president of the AAFP, an association that represents more than 93,000 physicians. Or, if a patient goes to a doctor's office, he might not be treated by his doctor: One way overwhelmed family physicians have been dealing with patients is to have office visits overseen by a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant, some of whom can dispense certain prescriptions and recommend specialists, Epperly says.

"At the time we need family-care physicians the most, we are producing the least," Epperly says. "The nation's medical schools are failing to produce a workforce that is essential to caring for America's communities."

How the gap is filled

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