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The primary care doctor shortage

Updated: 05/05/2014 8:39 PM
Created: 05/05/2014 1:11 PM WNYT.com
By: Benita Zahn

Finding a primary care doctor who's taking new patients can be challenging.

Fewer med students select that as a career path compared to more lucrative specialties.

Many doctors who now provide primary care are older and starting to retire, and younger doctors often want less demanding hours than their predecessors.

What does this doctor shortage mean to your health and how can things turn around?

It's a rite of passage for medical students as they wrap up their studies – Match Day. They day when they learn where they'll be doing their residencies - training in their selected specialty.

Most will opt for specialties other than primary care - which includes internal medicine and family practice.

“Number one, it doesn’t pay that much,” explained Sherry Chorost from Director of “Workforce” at HANYS.

That's led to a shortage of the doctors in this field; now exacerbated by the Affordable Care Act as more people are able to get care.

“I think there's definitely a crisis,” explained Dr. Henry Pohl, the Vice Dean of Academic Administration at Albany Medical College.

A crisis because you can wait months to see a doctor and be hard pressed to find these primary care practitioners in outlying areas.

On average med students graduate with loans of between $180,000 to $220,000.

“As I'm starting to do my loan counseling, look at programs, as I'm graduating in a month I'm thinking about how, how I'm going to pay back the loans with family, my wife and I,” said Chris Lops, a med student who is about to graduate.

Despite the debt, which Lops figures will take about 20 years to pay off, he says he took the advice of his teachers and is following his heart: He'll be specializing in internal medicine and pediatrics.

“I would hope that people would care about the health of their neighbors and everyone around them. We're in this together,” he explained.

To that end, medical schools are working with students to encourage them to select primary care specialties and preparing them to practice medicine in a different fashion.

“I think that medicine of the future will be practiced by teams of people. The doctor's role may be somewhat different than it is today. It's going to be central to the process but not the only process,” said Dr. Pohl.

That means a greater reliance on nurse practitioners and physicians assistants in our care.

Pohl says we have to get out of our emergency orientation to medicine.

“We have to spend more time and money in preventing illness or maintaining health,” he explained.

As this evolves, New York is encouraging medical students to select specialties that are in short supply, like primary care, general surgeons - especially in rural communities.

The doctors across New York program offers loan repayment of $150,000 for doctors committing to spending five years in the Empire State.

“Sometimes if they stay five years they kind a like it hear and they might stay on,” said Chorost.

“We just were successful in getting some more money in the state budget this year so we're hoping to get another 70 awardees out there this year.”

It's a start, and if reimbursement for primary care providers can be bumped up that will also help says Dr. Pohl. However, this won't be solved quickly and Pohl worries there may be more trouble ahead.

“So until we have a real crisis I don't think there will be the appropriate planning to create the system that will help us achieve good health care,” he explained.

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