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Health reform could swamp doctors

October 3, 2009

People with health insurance tend to see a doctor more than those without coverage. So health reform that would cover millions of uninsured Americans would theoretically send a flood of new patients to physicians. Yet in Indiana and nationwide, there’s already a shortage of doctors.

Dr. Craig Brater, dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine, said he’s moving to head off the shortage by gradually adding 84 students each year to the medical school’s class size.

Brater

“We projected a 30-percent physician shortage in 2020 if we keep going the way we’re going,” Brater said. “So we’ve already started taking action steps to make sure we’ve got enough doctors to meet the entire health needs of the entire population of Indiana. And similar things are occurring across the country.”

Still, IU’s plans won’t close the gap. IU’s analysis found the state would lack 1,300 physicians by 2025; yet, its expansion plans will add only about 1,000 new docs.

IU’s projections address only shortages expected to be caused by baby boomers, who will leave a huge hole in the ranks of physicians when they retire while at the same time greatly increasing the need for care. Those trends are projected to leave the nation short 159,000 doctors by 2025.

The possibility of far more patients with insurance—while certainly desirable for health reasons—threatens to make the doctor shortage even more acute. Some even worry that newly insured Americans wouldn’t be able to get in to see a doctor.

In 2006, Massachusetts passed health reforms similar to those Congress is now considering, and the newly insured swamped doctors.

According to a 2009 survey by the Massachusetts Medical Society, the percentage of family medicine physicians no longer accepting new patients rose from 30 percent in 2007 to 40 percent this year. And among the state’s internal medicine doctors, 56 percent no longer take new patients.

Brater, however, is heartened by the fact that, despite a recession and uncertainty created by the health care debate, the medical school has received more applicants of even higher quality.

“Even in these times of turmoil, we are seeing increasing numbers of students applying to medical school. The talent pool is extraordinary,” he said.

 

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