Is the coming physician shortage a myth?

Despite widespread concerns over a potential physician shortage within the healthcare system, many healthcare experts and economists say the medical community exaggerates the scope of the problem, National Public Radio reports.

Although there is general agreement that the U.S. needs more providers entering the industry, they do not all necessarily need to be doctors, Health Economist Gail Wilensky told NPR.

Nonphysician primary care providers such as physician assistants, nurse practitioners (NPs), social workers and pharmacists working under a team-based care model could fill many anticipated gaps in care she said. Indeed, team-based care is widely thought to be more cost-effective, according to the article. Moreover, research shows easing scope-of-practice laws for NPs can ameliorate the primary care shortage, FierceHealthcare previously reported. In April, New York became the 18th state to expand NPs' authority to practice independently.

"What will we allow nurses to do--work up to the limits of their license?" Wilensky told NPR. "Work up to the limits of their training? What will we allow pharmacists to do? Those together would determine how many physicians it would be useful to have around."

The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that the nation will need more than 90,000 doctors by 2020. But Wilensky cited previous studies predicting primary care shortages that turned out to be inaccurate, sometimes projecting a surplus that turned out to be a shortage or vice versa.

Furthermore, training doctors is a major cost to the healthcare system, Fitzhugh Mullan, M.D., of George Washington University told NPR, and the industry has a vested interest in fearmongering about a shortage. "The business model of an interest group is to create a sense of crisis," he told NPR, "and then tell their constituents, 'We can help you.' "

However, hospitals and other healthcare providers' inability to recruit more physicians may impact their bottom lines in coming years. Hospital executives are becoming concerned about the issue, according to Fortune. "It's not a surprise. We've been talking about (physician) shortages for quite some time," said Mike Alkire, chief operating officer for Premier, which recently published a survey on hospital concerns. "There's pressure on a market that has a small supply, and it's having financial implications."

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