New Studies Examine Primary Care Physician Shortage

Jan 15, 2013, 10:30 AM

Two newly published studies examining different aspects of physician workforce trends suggest that the long-expected shortfall in primary care physicians could be averted or lessened.

A study in Pediatrics finds pediatric residents are more likely to consider primary care or hospital practice––rather than a subspecialty that requires additional training––if they have more educational debt. The researchers found that residents with at least $51,000 in debt were about 50 percent more likely to be planning a primary care or hospitalist career than residents who owed less or no money, Reuters reports. They also found that educational debt rose 34 percent from 2006 to 2010 for pediatric residents.

While an unintended consequence of student loan debt may be that it helps relieve the primary care shortage, another recent study in Health Affairs casts some doubt on the severity of that shortage. Most existing estimates of the primary care physician shortage are based on a simple ratio of one physician for every 2,500 patients, the study says, which does not take into account changing patient demographics and alternative care-delivery methods. The researchers found that the use of health care teams and non-physicians, as well as improved information technology and data-sharing have “the potential to offset completely the increase in demand for physician services while improving access to care, thereby averting a primary care physician shortage.”

Read the study in Pediatrics.
Read the study in Health Affairs.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.