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March 24th, 2010
03:06 PM ET

How to fix the doctor shortage

Darrell G. Kirch
President and CEO of the Assoc. of American Medical Colleges
The Wall Street Journal

Congress needs to ensure we're cared for by more than an insurance card and an answering machine.

Congress is poised to pass a health-care overhaul that would expand insurance coverage to 31 million Americans, but will the newly insured have a physician to care for them?

Our nation currently faces a shortage of physicians expected to worsen as the number of people over age 65 (who use more than twice the health care of younger adults) doubles. Even with significant changes to the health-care delivery system and improved prevention, the United States will face a shortage of more than 125,000 physicians in the next 15 years—a daunting problem considering that we only train about 27,000 new doctors a year. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that at least 16,000 more primary care physicians are needed today.

The shortage of primary care physicians and other health professionals is further complicated by an overall physician shortage in most areas of the country. In 2001, new patients were forced to wait an average of eight days to see a family or general practitioner. Overall wait times for all physicians reached almost 15 days that year. Without significant increases in the number of doctors, these delays will only get worse.

On average, it takes three to seven years to fully train a new physician through a process known as residency training (the graduate medical education that all physicians must undergo after eight years of college and medical school). While U.S. medical schools are working to increase their classes by 30%, these new medical school graduates will not increase the nation's overall supply of physicians, or even have a residency position in which to train, unless the government lifts the cap on residency training slots it pays for that was imposed as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997.

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Filed under: Darrell G. Kirch • Health Care