Primary Care Workforce Situation: Not Hopeless

March 18, 2011
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I sometimes observe that the only sector of the economy as messed up as health care is higher education, where the US has some great institutions but where costs are incredibly high and have been rising relentlessly for long periods of time. These two dysfunctional systems intersect in multiple places, one of which is the cost of medical school and its impact on the physician workforce.

I sometimes observe that the only sector of the economy as messed up as health care is higher education, where the US has some great institutions but where costs are incredibly high and have been rising relentlessly for long periods of time. These two dysfunctional systems intersect in multiple places, one of which is the cost of medical school and its impact on the physician workforce.

One of the reasons the cost of health care is so high in the US is the overemphasis on specialists vs. primary care relative to other advanced countries. That overemphasis is a result of multiple factors, including a reimbursement system that favors procedures and the prestige associated with specialties. But another significant factor is the cost and financing of medical school. Average debt levels for graduating medical students are around $150,000. Combine that with leftover debt from college and it’s easy to get up into the $200,000 range. That’s a big nut to pay off in primary care where typical compensation is $150,000 per year or so.

That large debt level certainly discourages graduating medical students from going into primary care. My guess is it also deters some would-be primary care physicians from going to medical school in the first place.

Despite the challenges there is some good news on the primary care front. With match day just behind us, it appears that there is growth in the number of graduating medical students opting for primary care residencies. That makes the second year in a row with a significant increase and we should feel encouraged about that. My guess is that primary care is looking to new doctors like a more satisfying role while the specialties are seeming a bit more iffy. Also –based on my totally non-scientific observation, medical school now enrolls a larger percentage of people choosing the medical profession for the right reasons. Those who mainly want to make money are going into business and finance where they belong.

I’d really like to see something done about the cost of medical school. Since I’m assuming it’s futile to address tuition itself, I’d at least hope for an expansion of debt relief programs for those going into less lucrative specialties (mainly primary care) and committing to under-served geographic areas and settings. The Kraft family’s recent gift is a good example.

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