A Constant Struggle

Workforce Shortages, Increased Patient Populations, and Funding Woes Pressure the U.S. Primary-Care System

Bryn Nelson


The Hospitalist. 2012;16(8):1, 30-32. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


It's been about 15 years since the last surge of interest in primary care as a career, when U.S. medical graduates temporarily reversed a long decline by flocking to family medicine, general internal medicine, and pediatrics. Newly minted doctors responded enthusiastically to a widely held perception in the mid-1990s that primary care would be central to a brave new paradigm of managed healthcare delivery.

That profound change never materialized, and the primary-care workforce has since resumed a downward slide that is sounding alarm bells throughout the country. Even more distressing, the medical profession's recent misfortunes have spread far beyond the doctor's office.

"What we're looking at now is that there's a shortage of somewhere around 90,000 physicians in the next 10 years, increasing in the five years beyond that to 125,000 or more," says Atul Grover, MD, PhD, chief public policy officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. The association's estimates suggest that the 10- and 15-year shortfalls will be split nearly evenly between primary care and other specialties.

Hospitalists could feel that widening gap as well. With increasing numbers of aging baby boomers reaching Medicare eligibility and 32 million Americans set to join the ranks of the insured by 2019 through the Affordable Care Act, primary care's difficulties arguably are the closest to a fullblown crisis. "Primary care in the United States needs a lifeline," began a 2009 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.[1] And that was before an estimate suggesting that new insurance mandates will require an additional 4,307 to 6,940 primary-care physicians to meet demand before the end of the decade contributing about 15% to the expected shortfall.[2]

Why should hospitalists care about the fate of their counterparts? For starters, what's good for outpatient providers is good for a sound healthcare system. Researchers have linked strong primary care to lower overall spending, fewer health disparities, and higher quality of care.[3]

Hospitalists and primary-care physicians (PCPs) also are inexorably linked. They follow similar training and education pathways, and need each other to ensure safe transitions of care. And despite the evidence pointing to a slew of contributing factors, HM regularly is blamed for many of primary care's mounting woes.

Based on well-functioning healthcare systems around the world, analysts say the ideal primary-care-to-specialty-careprovider ratio should be roughly 40:60 or 50:50. According to Kathleen Klink, MD, director of the Division of Medicine and Dentistry in the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), only about 32% of physicians in the U.S. are practicing primary care. Unless something changes, that percentage will erode even further. "We're going in the wrong direction," Dr. Klink says.

Opinions differ on the extent of the current PCP shortage. Nevertheless, there is clearly a "hugemaldistribution problem," says Robert Phillips, MD, MSPH, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Robert Graham Center, a primarycare research center. Rural and underserved areas already are being shortchanged as more doctors locate in more affluent and desirable areas, he says.

That phenomenon is hardly unique to primary care, but Dr. Phillips says the deficit in frontline doctors could cause disproportionately more hardships in rural and underserved communities given the shrinking pipeline for medical trainees. A decade ago, almost a third of all medical graduates were placed into primary- care residency training slots. Now, he says, that figure is a bit less than 22%. "We can't even replace the primary-care workforce we have now with that kind of output," Dr. Phillips says.

Figure 1.

Already, many doctors are no longer accepting new Medicaid or Medicare patients because their practices are losing money from low reimbursement rates. The Affordable Care Act's significant expansion of insurance benefits, Dr. Grover says, will effectively accelerate the timetable of growing imbalances between supply and demand. "I think the challenge you face is, Will the ACA efforts to expand access fail because you're giving people an insurance card but you have nobody there to take care of them?"