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How to Avert a Doctor Shortage

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.

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