Battle to find docs may be a regional--not national--problem

While the possibility of a looming physician shortage remains a hot topic of debate, some recent reports suggest that the dearth of doctors is not a national problem, but a local one.

In contrast to the long-held notion that the advent of the Affordable Care Act, an aging population and an influx of retiring baby boomers all will conspire to leave the nation dangerously short on doctors, some have voiced doubts about whether this crisis will actually come to pass, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

Indeed, "we've been experiencing a 'looming' primary care doctor shortage for several decades now, and so far it somehow failed to progress beyond the looming stage," wrote BizMed partner Margalit Gur-Arie in an article on her website, HIT Consultant.

Not only is the idea of a major physician shortage somewhat suspect, but it could have serious consequences for the healthcare industry, according to Becker's Hospital Review. Training scores of extra doctors to make up for a perceived shortfall could add significant costs to the healthcare industry, and it could also make it more difficult for existing doctors to maintain private practices.

But while a nationwide physician shortage may be dubious, market-specific shortages are a far more feasible threat, particularly in rural areas, Becker's argued.

"In many nonmetropolitan markets, I see a workforce of physicians that is aging, increasingly restricting their practices and hospitals and health systems that are struggling to meet the demands of the market they're in," Randy Gott, senior vice president of consulting and management services at The Advisory Board Company, told the publication.

Reports from certain parts of the country seem to reinforce this sentiment, with one expert recently telling RadioIowa that he expects an "extreme shortage" of doctors in the state will likely be exacerbated by retirements, and the Washington (Indiana) Times Herald reporting that medical and academic groups hope to introduce legislation next year to increase the number of medical residencies. "While there are currently 1,500 medical residencies in Indiana, most are in Indianapolis," the Times Herald article noted.

Doctor shortages are just one of the many challenges faced by rural healthcare providers, which were hit especially hard by the financial crisis and have struggled to provide adequate access to care amid facility closures and consolidations, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To stem the gap, the Medical College of Wisconsin has introduced a three-year program that immerses students who want to work in underserved areas to practice in those targeted communities in exchange for lower tuition costs, according to Becker's. Similar initiatives in South Dakota--the Frontier and Rural Medicine program and Rural Experiences for Health Profession Students program--also seek to draw healthcare providers to underserved communities, according to FierceHealthcare.

To learn more:
- read the Becker's article
- read the HIT Consultant piece
- check out the RadioIowa report
- read the Times Herald article