The Doctor Won't See You Now

By Carmichael, Mary | Newsweek, March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Doctor Won't See You Now


Carmichael, Mary, Newsweek


Byline: Mary Carmichael

A critical shortage of primary-care physicians is yet another symptom of our ailing health-care system.

After taking a month to regroup, the White House has put health care back at the top of its agenda, asking Republicans for new ideas and trying to regain momentum for old ones. But last week's summit came down mostly to the same old talking points. And even if the president does manage to get some version of health-insurance reform passed in the next few months, he and the country are still going to be dealing with the related crisis of America's doctor shortage. Primary-care physicians, family docs, general practitioners--whatever you call them, they're the country's first line of defense, the ones responsible for promoting preventive care, finding ways to keep people from getting sick in the first place, and thus bringing down costs throughout the system. If every American went to one of these doctors regularly, health-care costs might come down as much as 5.6 percent a year, saving $67 billion, according to one estimate. Yet we don't have nearly enough doctors to make that happen, and fewer are being produced every year.

The annual number of American medical students who go into primary care has dropped by more than half since 1997. It's hard to get an appointment with the doctors who remain. In some surveys, as many as half of primary-care providers have stopped taking new patients. The other half are increasingly overworked and harried. Clearly we need to find a way to increase their ranks, and both the congressional health-care bills and President Obama's reform proposal make moves in that direction. But those efforts are somewhat limited, and a more comprehensive solution could be thwarted by the same thing that's stalled the rest of health-care reform so far: politics.

The reason behind America's doctor gap is a matter of money. The average income in primary care is somewhere in the mid-$100,000s, which sounds like a lot but is less than half what specialists such as radiologists and dermatologists make. Given that doctors may graduate with as much as $200,000 in med-school debt, it's easy to see why primary care started hemorrhaging recruits more than a decade ago and why radiology and other well-paid, high-tech specialties took off in popularity.

The field has since entered a vicious cycle. As fewer people have entered primary care, the doctors who are left have been forced by tight schedules to shortchange some patients, forgoing the long, meandering chats that used to be a big part of checkups in favor of 15-minute, checklist-style appointments. The close relationships that general practitioners once had with patients drew many idealistic students into the field. Now recruiters face an extra-tough sell: they have to convince bright young would-be docs to pursue a career that won't pay very well and won't be as emotionally fulfilling as it once was.

How can schools entice more aspiring doctors into primary care? The Tufts University School of Medicine, to take one example, offers a $25,000-per-year scholarship for med students who agree to work in primary-care practices in rural Maine for much of their training period. Students on this Maine Track start shadowing doctors on the third day of orientation. This year's program drew 257 applicants for just 36 slots.

The problem with the Maine Track is that it doesn't actually require med students to enter primary care after they graduate. It can't, says Peter Bates, chief medical officer at Maine Medical Center, which jointly administers the program with Tufts. "If you're a bright kid with a great future, being told you have to be a family physician in rural Maine--even if that's what you want to do [now]--might strike you as confining," Bates says. "Why would you close down your opportunities?"

There are dozens of training programs like Tufts's around the country, as well as the National Health Service Corps, which pays back loans and hands out scholarships and stipends in exchange for a few years of service in rural areas, where the shortage of primary-care providers is most acute. …

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