In the United States, a tangled web of federal and state regulations controls physician licensing. Although federal standards govern medical training and testing, each state has its own licensing board, and doctors must procure a license for every state in which they practice medicine (with some limited exceptions for physicians from bordering states, for consultations, and during emergencies).
This bifurcated system makes it difficult for physicians to care for patients in other states, and in particular impedes the practice of telemedicine. The status quo creates excessive administrative burdens and like contributes to worse health outcomes, higher costs, and reduced access to health care.
We believe that, short of the federal government implementing a single national licensing scheme, states should adopt mutual recognition agreements in which they honor each other’s physician licenses. To encourage states to adopt such a system, we suggest that the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) create an Innovation Model to pilot the use of telemedicine to provide access to underserved communities by offering funding to states that sign mutual recognition agreements.
The Current System And Its Drawbacks
State licensure of physicians has been widespread in the United States since the late nineteenth century. Licensure laws were ostensibly enacted to protect the public from medical incompetence and to control the unrestrained entry into the practice of medicine that existed during the Civil War. However, it no longer makes sense to require a separate medical license for each state.
Today, medical standards are evidence-based, and guidelines for medical training are set nationally through the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Graduate Medical Education standards, and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. All U.S. physicians must pass either the United States Medical Licensure Examinations or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.
Although the basic standards for initial physician licensure are uniform across states, states impose a patchwork of requirements for acquiring and maintaining licenses. These requirements are varied and burdensome and deter doctors from obtaining the licenses required to practice across state lines.
The goal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” is to make affordable, quality health care coverage available to more Americans. But how many physicians will America need to satisfy this new demand?
The debate over doctor supply rages on with very little conclusive evidence to prove one case or the other.
Those experts who see a shortage point to America’s aging population – and their growing medical needs – as evidence of a looming dearth in doctors. Many suggest this shortage already exists, particularly in rural and inner city areas. And still others note America maintains a lower ratio of physicians compared to its European counterparts.
This combination of factors led the American Association of Medical Colleges to project a physician shortage of more than 90,000 by 2020.
On the other side of the argument are health policy experts who believe the answer isn’t in ratcheting up the nation’s physician count. It’s in eliminating unnecessary care while improving overall productivity.
The solution, they say, exists in the shift away from fee-for-service solo practices to more group practices, away from manually kept medical records to electronic medical records (EMR), and away from avoidable office visits to increased virtual visits through mobile and video technologies. Meanwhile, they note physicians could further increase productivity by using both licensed and unlicensed staff, as well as encouraging patient self-care where appropriate.
The Doctor Divide: Global And Domestic Insights
Among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 30th in total medical graduates and 20th in practicing physicians per 1,000 people.
Despite these pedestrian totals, there is one area where the U.S. dominates. It ranks first in the proportion of specialists to generalists – and there’s not a close second.
These figures don’t resolve the debate on America’s need for physicians but they do reveal an important rift in the ratio of U.S. specialists to primary care practitioners.
Large coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act have reignited concerns about physician shortages. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) continues to forecast large shortfalls (130,000 by 2025) and has pushed for additional Medicare funding of residency slots as a key solution.
These shortage estimates result from models that forecast future supply of, and demand for, physicians – largely based on past trends and current practice. While useful exercises, they do not necessarily imply that intervening to boost physician supply would be worth the investment. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Most physician shortage forecast models assume insurance coverage expansions under the ACA will generate large increases in demand for physicians. The standard underlying assumption is that each newly insured individual will roughly double their demand for care upon becoming insured (based on the observation that the uninsured currently use about half as much care). However, the best studies of this – those using randomized trials or observed behavior following health insurance changes – tend to find increases closer to one-third rather than a doubling.
2. A recent article in Health Affairs found that the growing use of telehealth technologies, such as virtual office visits and diagnoses, could reduce demand for physicians by 25% or more.
3. New models of care, such as the patient-centered medical home and the nurse-managed health center, appear to provide equally effective primary care but with fewer physicians. If these models, fostered by the ACA, continue to grow, they could reduce predicted physician shortages by half.
As the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) exchanges open and Medicaid expansion takes effect, millions of uninsured Americans will gain new coverage. This raises a key question: how are we possibly going to meet the demands of all of these new individuals entering the system? The physician workforce is growing slowly, at best, at a time when an aging population is increasing demand for care.
Predictions include long lines for everyone, rising prices and premiums as physicians are able to command greater market power, and reduced quality of care. Some have recommended additional government funding to help train more medical residents as a response.
But while studies predict ACA implementation will prompt an increase in demand for medical services, there is evidence that the increase in demand will not be as great as the raw number of newly insured Americans might suggest.
The latest CBO forecast projects the reduction in the number of uninsured Americans under the ACA will be 11 million people next year and 24 million by 2016. That’s an increase in the percentage of Americans with insurance of roughly 5% in 2014 and 12% in 2016. If the uninsured used zero health care today, but upon becoming insured used the same amount as a typical insured person, then the increase in demand for care would be the same as the increase in coverage.
In reality, the uninsured use substantial amounts of health care – but only about half the care that the insured use today. One reason is because they are uninsured – paying full prices for care rather than a small copay discourages use. Another reason also explains why many (but not all) are uninsured in the first place: they are healthy and don’t anticipate needing or wanting medical care.
When the uninsured gain coverage, demand does increase, but not dramatically, studies show. Evidence from the Oregon Health Insurance experiment, in which a funding cap forced the state to grant Medicaid coverage to some applicants but not others using a lottery-type system, found that those who did gain coverage increased their use of both hospital and physician care by about one-third relative to controls.
In coming years the US could see growing shortages in the availability of primary care physicians (PCPs). With the number of individuals seeking care increasing and the current medical system continuing to incentivize physicians to specialize, the number of available PCPs will decline proportional to the population. To fill that gap, Ezra Klein and others have asserted that expanded scope of practice will allow nurse practitioners (NPs) to serve as viable substitutes for primary care shortages.
While NPs serve a vital role in the system and meet need, the argument that they are a 1:1 substitute for PCPs (but for the greedy doctors and pesky regulations holding them back) is singular and shortsighted. The argument also fails to address broader policies that influence both NP and PCP behaviors. Policies that unjustifiably lead to the unequal distribution of caregivers, location or expertise, inherently parlay into unequal care for patients. Sadly, a broader scope than “freeing nurse practitioners” is necessary to meet primary care needs, as NPs are complements, not substitutes. Policy must address the need for more primary care and assist to realign the system to meet our country’s basic care and equality through redistribution.
Primary care is the foundation of the evolving health care system, with equal access the intended goal of the ACA. Along the way to meeting future demand for primary care, NPs can be increasingly utilized to meet the needs of Americans and improve the health of the nation. And let it be known I am a strong proponent and supporter of nurse practitioners and all non-physician providers and coordinators. However, the argument that most NPs practice in primary care and will fill the primary care gap, estimated at about 66 million Americans, is inaccurate. It isn’t a 1:1 substitute, especially given that models of the solo practitioner are vanishing in lieu of complementary and team-based care.
The US, unlike many western countries, does not actively regulate the number, type, or geographic distribution of its health workforce, deferring to market forces instead. Those market forces, however, are paired with a payment system whose incentives favor high volume, high return services rather than health or outcomes. These incentives are reflected in where hospitals steer funding for training, and in the outputs of that training.
Throughout the US there are geographic pockets that fail to attract medical professionals of all kinds, creating true primary care deserts. These deserts occur in part due to the unequal distribution of practitioners in the health care system, with our medical schools and salary opportunities producing low numbers of generalists across the board. We have even continued to see shortages in nurses throughout the US.
It was a chance encounter.
After all it’s not every day you see an internist who still frequents a hospital. We’ve known each other for years and he’s been watching the changes in health care, too.
“Boy, they’re really not happy Over There. Seems they’ve contracted with Big Boy insurance as part of their new ACO model. Everyone’s going to get their piece before the doctors: Over There hospital, their four million administrators, lawyers, grounds crews, parking staff…. Then, after everyone else is paid, the doctors might get a few scraps if there’s some left over. No guarantees. All risk, no certainty of reward. There was no way I could still go there. I joined them, but had to leave when I saw how unworkable that was.”
“Isn’t this our new way forward?” I asked.
“I guess so. Scary. But I’ve got just a few more years. Just have to get the kids through college.”
There are lots of losers in President Obama’s effort to remake the U.S. health care system, and chief among them are the doctors. But there are also winners, especially nurses and physician assistants (PAs). Indeed, nurses and PAs win big in part because doctors lose badly.
Surveys repeatedly show doctors are fed up with low reimbursement rates from Medicare and even lower from Medicaid, which have increasingly led doctors to no longer see new patients in those government-run plans. For example, a recent Texas Medical Association survey found that “34 percent of Texas doctors either limit the number of Medicare patients they accept or don’t accept any new Medicare patients.” Even more do not accept patients with Medicaid.
Then there’s the heavy-handed regulations and requirements from both government and private health insurers. Complying with all those requirements and paperwork creates expensive and time-consuming administrative burdens. And to top it off, there’s the looming shadow of a high-cost lawsuit if things don’t turn out well.
And that’s all before ObamaCare kicks in, which will exacerbate every one of those problems. So it’s little wonder that there are physician shortages, especially in lower-paying primary care, and those shortages are only going to get worse if ObamaCare succeeds in getting an estimated 32 million more Americans insured.
The increased demand for medical care and lower reimbursements—which is one of the primary ways ObamaCare will try to hold down costs—is a recipe for a mass exodus of doctors willing to practice medicine. As “Physicians Practice” reported in August from its physician survey: “Nineteen percent say they plan to move to another position in the same field. An equal amount says they plan to leave medicine—not to retire, but to pursue something new.”
Just over two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law purported to increase access to health care and to “bend down” the health care cost curve. A great debate over the implications of that law, especially in the areas of coverage, affordability, and quality of care, has arisen. Furthermore, a series of political and legal challenges have generated uncertainty about the law’s prospects within the health industry and at the state level. Despite this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already issued over 12,000 pages of regulations elaborating on the original 2,700-page law, leading to more uncertainty regarding how appointed and career federal officials will determine the exact shape of the law’s final requirements. All of this uncertainty raises real concerns about how the new law will impact the most crucial actors in any health care reform effort: doctors.
Doctors are demonstrably nervous about the new law and how it will affect their incomes, their access to technologies, and their professional autonomy. According to a survey by the Doctors Company, 60 percent of physicians are concerned that the new law will negatively impact patient care. Only 22 percent are optimistic about the law’s impact on patient care. Fifty-one percent feel that the law will negatively impact their relationships with patients. These statistics raise questions about how and whether doctors will participate in the new system.
As I noted last week, I get a little annoyed by the seemingly constant public complaints of physicians, coupled with threats to leave medicine and dire warnings that no one will want to be a doctor in the future. This is in spite of it still being one of the most trusted professions around, and one that is darn well compensated. So it’s nice to see that the general public hasn’t bought into this meme yet (from the AAMC 2011 Medical School Enrollment Survey):
- First-year medical school enrollment in 2016–2017 is projected to reach 21,376. This projection represents a 29.6% increase above first-year enrollment in 2002–2003 and comes close to reaching the 30% targeted increase by 2015 the AAMC called for in 2006.
- Of the projected 2002–2016 growth, 58% will be at the 125 medical schools that were accredited as of 2002. New schools since 2002 will experience 25% of the growth, and the balance (17%) will come from schools that are currently in LCME applicant- or candidate-school standing.
As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time with physicians. As a group, they sure do like to complain. Yet, medical school applications are strong, and residency spots are still competitive. So I take cries of “they’re all going to quit” with a grain of salt.
That said, I also like data. So it’s worth checking in every once in a while to see what physicians, as a group, are thinking. There’s a study in the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health that does just that:
The status of the primary care workforce is a major health policy concern. It is affected not only by the specialty choices of young physicians but also by decisions of physicians to leave their practices. This study examines factors that may contribute to such decisions. We analyzed data from a 2009 Commonwealth Fund mail survey of American physicians in internal medicine, family or general practice, or pediatrics to examine characteristics associated with their plans to retire or leave their practice for other reasons in the next 5 years.
What did they find? More than half of physicians age 50 and over had plans to leave their practice in the next 5 years, or weren’t sure about staying in practice. No physicians age 35-49 had plans to retire, but 20% weren’t sure they’d stay in practice. I take such numbers with a grain of salt, though. That’s partly because, as I said above, doctors like to complain. That’s also because saying what you are going to do in the future is not the same as what you will actually do. In case people hadn’t noticed, the job market isn’t too awesome out there. I think many physicians are delusional if they think they can just quit practicing medicine and find another lucrative job.
But I think that the reasons that primary care docs say they might quit are illuminating. Those reasons are likely the things that make them unhappy about practicing, and we can definitely learn from that.