Positive News on Frontlines of the Primary-Care Shortage

August 18, 2016

When it comes to the number of primary-care doctors in the U.S., bad news seems to be the norm nowadays. Here are some positive developments for a change.

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I recently sought to find a new primary-care physician 'who's located closer to where my wife and I live.

It ended up being a lot harder than I thought. Either doctors don't take our insurance, aren't taking new patients, or just don't have 15 minutes to spare in the next few months.

The primary-care physician shortage is real, people. I am sure you didn't need me to tell you that, but it's interesting to experience firsthand an issue that we seem to talk about every day. I couldn't help but think of the people who aren't lucky enough to have a nice insurance plan and who live in an underserved area. While I consider myself extremely fortunate, I did have trouble with my search (I did eventually find someone). What do less fortunate people go through to get a normal checkup? 

There is good news, however, on the frontlines of this shortage. According to recent research on Health Affairs from the Center for Health Workforce Studies (CHWS), family medicine was actually ranked by outgoing residents and fellows as the highest in-demand specialty in New York State. In other words, this research aims to dispel the myth that residents don't want to go into primary care by saying that family medicine was the most desired specialty for trainees in New York state in 2015. Moreover, not only was demand among these trainees higher for primary care, the researchers found that those searching for generalist jobs had less difficulty finding a position than specialists.

The researchers are unclear why exactly this is the case, but obviously it's a positive development. They suggest the efforts to promote primary care in a patient-centered care model may be paying off.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, lawmakers are taking the primary-care shortage into their own hands. With a scarcity of primary-care doctors, specifically in the rural areas of the state, it has passed a law that gives a tax credit to people who teach and train medical students who want to practice family medicine. The state is also considering passing a tax credit for those physicians who practice family medicine in rural areas or perhaps loan forgiveness, either of which I think would be a great idea.

There are other initiatives happening across the country, including Michigan and Northern California. While these represent small steps, it's nice to see some progress being made in overcoming this primary-care shortage. Each small step forward is better than anything backwards.

I talk to primary-care doctors on a regular basis and they all understand why no one (seemingly) wants to go into their area of medicine anymore. Less pay, more hours, more paperwork and insurer-induced stress, and more negative encounters with patients over high bills. The reasons are fairly well established. There needs to be more reasons to get them to go into primary care. I would love to see the CHWS do a follow-up study to understand why those trainees are interested in family medicine.

When we look at the various challenges plaguing healthcare in this country - various types of heart disease, rising rates of obesity, substance abuse, an overreliance on prescription pain medication, among many others - it's clear that a dearth of primary-care physicians will exacerbate things. Primary-care doctors are the key cog in team-based care and research backs up their prominence in these areas.

Here's to hoping New York, Colorado, Michigan, and Northern California end up as trendsetters.

Follow Gabriel Perna on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna