There is a critical shortage of primary care providers in the United States. The public’s perception is that there is no shortage, and politicians have spent very little time talking about how to address the shortage. The American Academy of Family Physicians has been carefully studying this issue and strongly recommends incentives for physicians who would consider primary care: increased reimbursement for non-procedural work, and medical school debt-forgiveness are two of many.
The universal coverage system in Massachusetts immediately unmasked the problem of the primary care shortage. Newly insured citizens have been astonished to discover that they cannot find a primary care physician even though they want one. Wait times often exceed 6 months, and very few physicians are accepting new patients.
I have had the privilege of listening in to various healthcare reform discussions among politicians and advocacy groups here in Washington. Every time I raise the issue of “what will you do about the primary care shortage?” they offer the same tepid response: all providers will need to “work together” to provide primary care services, and innovative programs like retail clinics and nurse-driven care models will help to fill the gap in physicians.
My friend and fellow blogger, Dr. Rich Fogoros recently wrote an amusing (and cynical) post about how physicians should simply “hand over” primary care to nurses. (The same argument that many politicians seem to be making). The only problem with this reasoning is that nurses may not be willing to provide primary care services for the same reasons that physicians aren’t too keen on it: the pay is low, the workload is grueling, and there are other career options that offer better lifestyle and salary benefits.
I spoke with a group of nurses on a recent podcast about this very issue and their view was that, “we’re not suckers” – primary care is not as appealing as ICU work, for example.
Gina (Code Blog): Not every nurse wants to go back to school for additional years and shell out a lot of money to become a nurse practitioner and then not make a whole lot more than we’re making now. I’ve worked with nurse practitioners who have come back to work in the ICU because they can’t make enough money in primary care to support their families.
Strong One (MyStrongMedicine): We don’t have enough educators to teach nursing at our nursing schools. Nurse educators are paid about a quarter of what they’d make at the bedside. There are long waits to get into nursing school because we don’t have enough instructors to handle the influx. Until that problem is solved we aren’t going to see in increase in nurses entering the market.
Terri Polick (Nurse Ratched’s Place): I have a friend who’s a nurse practitioner and she had to borrow over $100,000 for her education. I’m a three-year diploma nurse so technically I don’t even have a college degree – but I’m making a lot more than nurse practitioners and I don’t have all that debt. Politicians need to know that nurse practitioners can’t just “pick up the slack” from physicians. Nursing and medicine are two different specialties and we’re trained to do different things.
So for those of you out there who may have shrugged at the primary care shortage and figured that when the docs are gone, someone else will just pick up the slack – think again. Any national universal coverage system will simply unmask what many physicians have known all along: equal access to nothing is nothing. Without making primary care a more attractive career option for providers of all stripes, don’t expect an influx of any sort into the field.
Long wait times for basic healthcare will probably become the norm in America.