Editor's Corner

Physician Shortage: Recruit or Reorganize?

This week there was a lot of talk about the physician shortages, principally in the area of primary care. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, patients in a number of states will face a serious family physician shortage by the year 2020. And a study released by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) found that primary care physicians' pay increased only 3.89 percent in 2005. The group says that the small increase isn't in line with the amount of work that primary care docs do.

On the surface, it seems obvious that the nation will face a shortage of doctors in the coming years. As a growing number of people reach retirement age, they're going to need more doctor's visits, more procedures, and more time in the hospital. The baby boomers who, as we all know, won't be hitting old age until three years after they're dead, will be crowding into doctor's offices and hospitals across the nation. If the number of new doctors remains stagnant--or drops--there's going to be an increasingly strong demand for fewer and fewer doctors. And lets not forget that many practicing doctors are baby boomers themselves and are headed for retirement.

But are we really facing a shortage, or is this just a symptom of an inefficient healthcare system? Earlier this year, Matthew Holt of The Health Care Blog challenged the claim that there will be a physician shortage. "The powers that be in health care are advocating more money to come directly from the taxpayer into the system to train more doctors, who will then cost the nation much more when they go into practice. Of course that's a much easier answer for them than rational reorganization of the health care system," he argued. Perhaps it's just the distribution of doctors that's the problem, since the number of primary care doctors are decreasing and the number of high-paid specialists is on the rise. So, is it time to recruit new doctors or to reorganize our current system? Email me with your thoughts. - Maureen