Anticipating a growing, aging population and the anticipated demands of those newly insured under the Affordable Care Act, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the United States will face a shortage of 130,000 physicians just over a decade from now.
This projected shortage, which also has been recognized by the federal government and some academics, could mean limited access to care for many Americans, plus longer wait times and shorter office visits for those who do find a doctor.
But like treating an illness, heading off the doctor shortage could hinge on early detection and intervention. And as research at RAND and elsewhere has shown, the treatment options should go beyond the standard prescriptions of training more doctors or reducing care for patients.
A RAND analysis issued last fall concluded that increased use of new models of medical care could avert the forecasted doctor shortage. These models would expand the roles of nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other non-doctors.
One option is “medical homes,” which are primary care practices in which a personal physician leads a team of others — advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, nutritionists — in overseeing the delivery of individuals’ health care needs, roughly comparable to a dentist overseeing hygienists. By drawing on a broader mix of health care providers, this team approach lessens reliance on the physicians themselves.
Medical homes currently account for about 15 percent of primary care nationally. Research on their efficacy is continuing. A RAND report released in February found mixed results for a major pilot effort of the new model and offered suggestions for improvement. Still, if medical homes continue to gain traction and grow to nearly half of primary care, the nation’s projected physician shortage could shrink by 25 percent.
Another approach is nurse-managed health centers, which are clinics managed and operated by nurses who provide primary care and some specialty services. They are typically affiliated with academic health centers, but operate without physicians. If nurse-managed health centers were to account for 5 percent of primary care, up from just 0.5 percent today, the anticipated doctor shortage could, again, fall by 25 percent.
As of June last year, Americans now owe more in student debt than they do in credit card debt. Student borrowers are winning the dangerous debt race as both amounts hurtle toward the $1 trillion marker, student debt rose by over 500% since 1999 (1). To put this in perspective, student debt has increased at nearly double the rate of inflation seen in the housing bubble that caused the recent financial crisis. There are foreboding similarities between real estate and education. Until 2008, it was assumed that both commodities would unfailingly rise in value and that the market was far from saturated. However, the number of unemployed college graduates is rising and a recent report found that two out of five student loan borrowers were delinquent on their payments at some point in the first 5 years of their loan (2). Moreover, unlike credit card or mortgage debt, student debt is not diffusible through bankruptcy, it stays with borrowers for life.
Despite this unstable situation, in August 2011 Congress passed the Budget Control Act that will abolish subsidies from a pillar of education finance—the Federal Direct Stafford loan. Although undergraduates with the loan will continue to receive subsidies, graduate students will start accruing interest while still in school. With the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the increasing time it is taking post-grads to pay off their loans, this amount adds up quickly. For example, a medical student who matriculates in 2012 and receives the unsubsidized Stafford loan for all four years of her schooling will graduate with $5000 more in debt than a medical student who graduated this year, all resulting from interest charges that accrued while she was studying full time. It often takes medical students 10 years or more to repay all their debt, and in that time interest will continue to add up so that she actually pays $10,000 just for the interest on that single, federally-provided loan. In total, $18 billion is being passed off onto graduate students over the next ten years (3) The removal of subsidies is a subtle step but it sends a strong message. If the federal government continues to retract its commitment to financially support higher education, it risks three major effects: exaggerating the student debt crisis, inhibiting diversity in higher education and discouraging the pursuit of non-profit or socially responsible careers.