WASHINGTON (SBG) — A nationwide doctor shortage is looming, with the United States potentially short more than 100,000 doctors in the next decade. With experts predicting rural parts of the country taking the hardest impact, both state and federal government organizations are making investments designed to fill the gap and channel physicians to areas in need.
Doctor Jesse Heard is a country doctor and a medical Mister Fix-it. Considering where he works, he says he doesn't have much choice. Heard is a physician at a clinic in Michigan's isolated Upper Peninsula, where some patients have to drive as far as 100 miles to see him. "There have been days where I have gone from psychiatry to stitching up a 32-centimeter laceration from a band saw," Heard explained.
In Michigan, 1.7 million people lack access to primary care services. But doctor shortages are not limited to that state. In fact, the federal government has already labeled hundreds of places “Health Professional Shortage Areas.” And organizations including the Association of American Medical Colleges have sounded the alarm about an impending doctor shortage for years. Dr. Atul Grover is the executive vice president of AAMC, which released data in April showing that by 2032, the United States will see a shortage of up to 122,000 doctors.
"People who are underserved are really gonna suffer the most," Grover said. "But that’s going to be your neighbors, your family members, patients who are living in rural areas or other areas that are hard to access."
During an interview with our partner, Full Measure, Grover explained the shortage could be chalked up to several factors. They include population growth, aging and a cap on congressional funding that covers the residency training doctors need. And AAMC's research shows the south and Midwest will have the biggest demand for physicians down the road.
To fill the demand in those areas, as well as other underserved populations nationwide, the federal government is stepping in. Loan repayment of up to $50,000 is offered to physicians who commit to two years of service in shortage areas, as part of the National Health Service Corps. Spotlight on America discovered more than 2,400 physicians are currently enrolled in the program, which funded more than $25 million in loan repayment in fiscal 2019. As a whole, the NHSA has an even larger budget, awarding $319 million this year in both scholarships and loan repayment for clinicians in its program, which includes doctors as well as nurses and other health practitioners who serve millions of patients nationwide, mostly at community health centers.
States are also innovating to fill the gap. In Michigan, a new program called MIDOCS is creating funding and educational collaborations to channel doctors to underserved areas. Doug Skrzyniarz, the vice dean of Finance and Administration at Wayne State University in Detroit, helped get the program off the ground.
"We always talk about statistics, but statistics don't solve the problem," Skrzyniarz said. "People do."
MIDOCS is a partnership between four universities: Wayne State University, Central Michigan University, Michigan State University and Western Michigan University. The program, which is state-funded, offers loan repayment of $75,000 for doctors who agree to spend two years post-residency working in underserved areas. MIDOCS leadership has said the program could cut Michigan's doctor shortage by more than half within 10 years. Skrzyniarz called it a blueprint for other states facing the same physician crunch in both rural and urban settings.
"We find that when people go and train in that particular community, they become part of that community," Skrzyniarz said. "They know the patients they serve. They know the folks who own the family restaurant that they go to eat. They joined the local golf club. And so they become a fabric of the community."
Doctors like Jesse Heard know just what he means. He says practicing medicine in a rural area feels incredibly personal. "It's really nice to hear thank you. You know, I stop at the gas station. I hear, 'Hey Doc Heard, thanks for helping my mom.' You know, nothing feels better than that,' he said.