Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Solving the Physician Shortage

A recent USA Today article stated that it is predicted that there will be a "shortage" of primary care physicians by 2020. The number of medical students choosing primary care (such as family practice or pediatrics) has been declining over the last decade. Why?

For one, the average salary for these two types of physicians is relatively lower than for other specialties - such as surgeons and radiology. So relatively lower salaries should in part induce medical students away from primary care to other areas of medicine. So to solve this, one could increase the salaries of primary care physicians relative to other medical specialties and this will partially solve this problem.

Another issue is there is more demand than supply of primary care physicians and one way of taking care of this is to allow greater immigration of physicians into the US. This has met with some resistance in some areas. Relaxing immigration restrictions for medically qualified individuals should also take care of some of the "shortage".

But here is an even easier way of solving this "problem". Medical schools and the AMA routinely restrict the number of medical students that attend medical school. They do so by justifying that it is based on quality. Yet my guess is that some undergraduates that are denied admittance to medical school can pass the courses and residency requirements to be primary care physicians. Thus open up more seats in medical school to allow for some students to track in primary care. Thus the medical school can simply say to some applicants - you do not qualify for general surgery due to low grades, etc. but you can enter medical school if you choose primary care as your specialty.

Thus the reason a "shortage" is predicted for primary care physicians is that there is a market barrier (on the training and education side), not due to a lack of market forces.

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