KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Physician Shortage Could Hinder Health Reform

The number of new primary care doctors each year has fallen nearly 50 percent since 1997, the Dallas Morning News reports, leaving a shortage that could hinder Congress's ambition to reform health care and cover millions of uninsured Americans. One cause of the shortage is that primary care doctors earn less – the average pediatrician makes $171,000 compared with $480,000 for orthopedic surgeons, according to one study – but must pay back medical school debts similar to those drawn by their higher-paid colleagues. As a result the higher paid specialists outnumber primary care physicians 2 to 1 (Roberson, 7/6).

"Simply put, there aren't enough primary-care doctors… to meet the demand of American now, much less the 46 million uninsured people," the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports. "The national situation is dire enough that federal officials and legislators are proposing solutions, including: granting medical-school debt relief to students entering primary care; retooling the insurance system to better compensate primary-care doctors; and expanding the National Health Service Corps, which funds doctors and nurses in rural areas and poor neighborhoods" (Simpson, 7/5). 

While fast-growing cities have drawn a surplus of specialists and too few primary care doctors, much of the primary care decline has fallen on rural areas, the Raleigh News & Observer. The paper adds: "The hours are long and unpredictable. In rural communities, family doctors can be on call perpetually. Their local hospitals seldom have staff doctors, so when their patients are admitted, they often must travel miles from their homes and offices to make rounds" (Avery, 7/5).

Meanwhile, newly minted nurses are finding that jobs are scarce, even as "experts continue to warn of a looming shortage of nurses in Iowa and across the nation. And some nursing schools are touting the profession as a safe alternative for workers who have been laid off from other careers," the Des Moines Register reports. One new nurse, Rachel Seltz, told the register the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota withdrew its job offer because of the economic recession (Leys, 7/6).

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