Lack of doctors is real health-care crisis

By Van Allen
Hearst Newspapers

America faces a looming health-care crisis, but the problem isn’t a lack of insurance, as most presidential candidates would have us believe. The problem is a lack of doctors.

The subject of America’s ailing health-care system is high on the lists of priorities of the presidential candidates. Democrats and Republicans all seem eager to craft federally-funded programs to extend health insurance coverage to the nearly 50 million American citizens currently without. But the physician supply/patient demand predicament facing America’s health-care system will only be exacerbated with universal health care.

What good will universal health care be if there aren’t enough doctors to satisfy patient demand?

The U.S. health-care industry is already seriously understaffed, and the lack of physicians is felt most acutely in rural and poor urban areas where a dearth of money and state-of-the-art equipment serve as a disincentive for attracting new talent.

Average wait times to see a specialist are on the rise as more patients seek appointments with fewer doctors. American medical schools are responding to the labor shortage, expanding programs and increasing enrollment.

Compounding this labor shortage is the fact that more and more doctors are considering leaving the profession because of an increasingly difficult work environment. For example, in its 2007 workforce study, the Massachusetts Medical Society found that 37 percent of physicians in the state were considering leaving the profession because of factors including the rising cost of liability insurance, the constant threat of being sued and increasing administrative burdens.

It is difficult to see how providing universal medical insurance coverage will improve access to quality health-care services. Indeed, the addition of 50 million new patients into a system unprepared to handle the workload is more than likely to result in a health-care crisis of untold proportions.

What can we do to address our national health care crisis? An emphasis on preventative medicine, along with better public health education will ease patient demand. Insurance and tort reform meant to cut risk and administrative costs while protecting good doctors from predatory lawsuits will encourage more physicians to remain in the profession. The supply of physicians can be further increased by opening new medical schools along with an expansion of medical tuition forgiveness for doctors who enter public service programs, federal grants or tax incentives for schools that meet tuition and performance targets, and an amendment of immigration rules to encourage an influx of qualified foreign physicians.

Instead of making promises and engaging in political experimentation, these are the issues that the candidates should consider and debate in order to make the right prescription for health care in America.

Van Allen is president of TimeLine Recruiting, a physician recruitment firm based in Columbia, Mo.
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