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February 26th, 2010
03:54 PM ET

Doctor Shortage in America: What's the Problem?

President Obama wants a health care bill on his desk by the end of March.

President Obama wants a health care bill on his desk by the end of March.

Boyce Watkins, PhD

One of the obstacles being faced by President Obama as he works to overhaul the health care system is the shortage of doctors across America. Our country is woefully unprepared for the number of primary care physicians that we will need as the American population ages. The problem is that fewer doctors are interested in doing primary care, since the medicare payments to primary care physicians are lower than those made to specialists. As a result, there's been a 51.8% decline in the number of medical school students going into primary care since 1997.
The American Academy of Family Physicians predicts that by 2020, we will be short 40,000 family physicians relative to what our nation will need by that time. The American Medical Association is one of the primary culprits in the doctor shortage. A 1994 article, as well as many conferences during the 80s and 90s, predicted a 165,000 surplus in the number of doctors by the year 2000. As a result, medical schools agreed to voluntarily restrict the supply of medical students entering their programs. The only problem was that the predicted surplus never occurred. Instead, we got a shortage.

Dr. Elaina George, a prominent physician out of Atlanta, says that the doctor shortage is going to have lasting consequences on the American public.

"In the short term, there will likely be a decrease in access since we will be unable to accommodate the increase in patients," says Dr. George, one of the few black doctors willing to discuss health care reform in public. "In the long term a patient will have to wait even longer to see a specialist."

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