There’s a direct link between the number of primary care doctors and an increase in life expectancy, according to a new study.
But unfortunately, there’s been a decrease in the supply of those doctors across many areas of the U.S., the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found.
Using population health data, researchers found that every 10 additional primary care physicians per 100,000 people was associated with a 51.5-day increase in life expectancy. That was more than 2.5 times higher than seen with a similar increase in non-primary care physicians.
However, from 2005 to 2015, the density of primary care physicians decreased from 46.6 to 41.4 per 100,000 population—an 11% decline across those 10 years.
Specifically, the total number of primary care physicians in that time frame increased from 196,014 to 204,419, but distribution across counties changed with the average supply of primary care physicians decreasing, with greater declines in rural areas, researchers found.
The largest decreases in mortality associated with more primary care doctors were for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory tract disease—conditions that those physicians can manage or detect with early screening.
In an accompanying commentary, three physicians from the New York University School of Medicine said payment reform is the only way to increase the number of primary care doctors.
“To increase access to primary care, especially in underserved areas, we must align incentives to attract individuals into primary care practice, innovate primary care training, and greatly improve the primary care practice model. Physician payment reform is a key to making all of this happen,” they wrote.
The cost, if changes are not made, will be increased morbidity and higher premature mortality for patients, they said.
The country could see a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.