Imagine a health care system where every time you want your annual checkup, you must see a cardiologist to get your heart checked, an ENT to get your ears and throat checked, a GI doc to get your abdomen checked, and so on and so forth. Sounds pretty terrible and needlessly expensive, right his hypothetical dystopia, however, isn’t too far off from the direction that the American health care system is going.
Primary care family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine is experiencing physician shortages that may prove to be devastating for the health and well-being of America if no action is taken. As I already mentioned, primary care physicians include family doctors, pediatricians and general internists.
They serve as the patient’s first point of entry into the health care system and take continual responsibility for providing the patient’s comprehensive care, e.g. preventive care; acute care and chronic care management. Many know their primary care physician more colloquially as “their doctor.”
The medical industry as a whole isn’t faring too well. We are seeing higher rates of physician and nurse burnout, debt is piling up on new and prospective health professionals from the rising costs of schooling, and to add insult to injury, many doctors aren’t being compensated as much as they were in the past. To top that; doctors have one of the highest rates of suicide among any profession; and these unfortunate circumstances fall even harder on primary care physicians.
Unfortunate circumstances fall
So why are we experiencing primary care shortages? The simple answer: pay. Primary care physicians make on average about $90,000 less a year than physicians in other specialties; according to a Medscape Physician Compensation Report. With student debt averaging in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for recent medical school graduates; it’s not surprising that more and more young doctors are choosing to go into higher-paying specialties.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics files between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of physicians in PC fell from 44% to 37%; capturing a growth rate of 8% in that time frame as opposed to a 48% overall growth rate for other specialties in the same period. Other factors play a role in the primary care shortage; the demanding work life and the diminishing autonomy due to a controlling insurance industry; but it ultimately comes down to the simple economics of it all; and this is where the attention should fall going forward.
Essential to a healthy society
Why should we care about primary care? At this point, you may be wondering if declining rates of primary care physicians are something that would actually impact you negatively. In fact; a Kaiser Family News national poll of American adults found that Americans; especially the younger generations, value primary care very little; so it wouldn’t be a shock if you’re already scrolling to the next opinion piece.
Despite the national sentiment, primary care is essential to a healthy society. Research shows that increasing the number of primary care physicians in any community greatly increases that community’s quality of care received and significantly reduces the overall cost of health care it bears. The exact opposite results are found when increasing the number of specialists in a community.