A "second opinion" on our doctor shortage

Jim McPherson

My heart skipped a beat when I saw that a trial lawyer was writing about Arizona’s physician shortage (“Vanishing physician scenario is a myth,” Arizona Republic, February 4, 2007).

First of all, the report was prepared by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, not St. Luke’s Health Initiative. I’m guessing that Attorney Ryan downloaded the report from the St. Luke’s website. (Okay, an honest mistake. No need to call 911.)

While Arizona’s physician workforce has grown faster than the general population in the recent past (per the report and Mr. Ryan’s reassertion), a long-standing gap remains unfilled. Consider these other points of fact:

~ The physician to population ratio in Arizona of 207 per 100,000 is still far below the national average of 283 per 100,000. (My take: We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.)

~ Large geographic disparities remain in where physicians treat their patients. About 86% of Arizona doctors practice in either Maricopa or Pima counties. The physician-to-patient ratio ranges from a high of 276 per 100,000 in Pima County to a low of 48 per 100,000 in Apache County. (My take: Residents in rural Arizona are being short-changed.)

~ The number of primary care physicians, hospital-based physicians, and surgeons has increased; BUT the number practicing in allergy, cardiovascular diseases, endocrinology, gastroenterology, hematology, and infectious disease has decreased. (My take: Good luck in finding a specialist or getting an appointment when you do find one.)

While Mr. Ryan stated his case on the front page of the editorial section, several local doctors expressed their personal stories of leaving the profession in “letters to the editor” on the inside pages. Anecdotal true, but important perspectives to consider just the same.

Arizona’s shortage will likely continue in part because more than one in ten of our doctors will be age 65 or older by 2010, and most can be expected to retire.

So what do we need to do? According to Dr. Mary Rimsza, one of the study’s co-authors, “Arizona needs to become a more attractive place for physicians to practice because of our rapidly growing population, limited medical school enrollment, and aging physician population.”

Case closed. No argument there.
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