A shortage of primary care physicians in some parts of the country are expected to worsen as millions of newly insured Americans gain health insurance coverage in January when the Affordable Care Act goes into effect.
Physicians could face a backlog and patients could find it difficult to get quick appointments.
Tennessee ranks 30th in the nation terms of physicians per capita with less than 5,000 physicians to treat the state’s 6.3 million residents.
Nearly one in five Americans already lives in a region designated as having a shortage of primary care physicians. The number of doctors entering the field isn’t expected to keep pace with demand.
Morristown’s two hospitals are already feeling this shortage months before the new law goes into effect.
“Published data shows we currently have a deficit of 11 primary care providers in Hamblen County,” said Gordon Lintz, chief administrative officer at Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System. “With more individuals having health coverage, more physicians will be needed. MHHS is already working collaboratively to recruit more physicians to our community.”
Clyde Wood, chief executive officer at Lakeway Regional Hospital, said because of the area’s hospitals, the Lakeway Area may be in a better position than some.
“While the Affordable Care Act may not directly tie with physician recruitment, communities with well-functioning health systems will be in good positions to attract providers that can build and sustain long-lasting medical practices,” Wood said.
The nationwide shortage of primary care physicians are attributed to a number of factors: the population is getting older and becoming more chronically ill, the number of doctors entering the field isn’t expected to keep pace with demand, doctors and clinicians are migrating to specialty fields for higher pay and better hours.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there are an estimated 250,000 primary care doctors in the United States now. The shortage will reach almost 30,000 in two years and will grow to about 66,000 in more than a decade.
Many of these providers are still in the dark about how the ACA will impact their practices.
A lot of the influx of new patients will be dependent on co-pays and deductibles, said Joel Hornberger, chief operating officer of Cherokee Health Systems, a primary care provider with more than 50 physicians.
“It is likely there will be an increased demand,” Hornberger said. “We’re hiring additional staff to gear up for that.”
CHS is also actively recruiting family nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.
“We have 670 employees now,” Hornberger said. “We expect that next year at this time, that could be significantly higher. The challenge is to find quality applicants.”
He said CHS has a great working relationship with the regional colleges and universities that routinely train health care professionals, including the medical schools at the University of Tennessee, Lincoln-Memorial University and East Tennessee State University.
They also work with the nursing program at Walters State Community College.
The federal health care law attempt to address anticipated shortages by including incentives to bolster the primary care workforce and boost training opportunities for physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners. If offers financial assistance to support doctors in underserved and increases the level of Medicaid reimbursements for those practicing primary care.