Aug. 05--Alarm bells sounded years ago for a coming doctor shortage in Memphis, then rang louder at the thought of thousands of new patients surging into doctors' offices with health insurance from the Affordable Care Act.
Shelby County needs nine more primary care doctors, according to August 2012 numbers from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency. They're needed in the low-income areas of northwest Memphis/Frayser as well as in southwest Memphis, the federal agency said.
University of Memphis economists have come closest to quantifying the possible ACA-related shortage issue in their January study "Impacts of Health Reform in Tennessee," that said the law would expand health insurance coverage to 558,044 non-elderly, currently uninsured Tennesseeans who would generate 707,042 new doctor-office visits annually.
This -- while bringing about $2.27 billion to the state's health care industry -- would require 194 new primary care physicians to adequately cover patients in 44 of the state's 95 counties. Fifty-five Tennessee counties are already short on doctors, according to the federal HRSA.
But the situation could get worse as the economy gets better, said Dr. Steve Schwab, chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
"Many people (on the verge of retirement) have stayed in the workforce in all health professions as a result of the economy," Schwab said. "As soon as the economy recovers and they can retire or go part-time, they will."
Memphis-headquartered UTHSC is on the front lines of the doctor shortage challenge as it produces about 75 percent of Tennessee's health care workforce on its three campuses in Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
To address the shortage, the university added 15 student slots to its College of Medicine in 2009 for a total annual class size of 165. Students in that first expanded class are now juniors, will graduate in May 2013 and will be able to practice freely in 2017 after a four-year residency.
A physician shortage is certainly not only a Memphis problem. The Association of American Medical Colleges study predicted a national shortage of 90,000 doctors by the end of the decade.
"We ought to be training another 3,000 to 4,000 new physicians a year in order to make up just one-third to one-half of that shortage and Congress needs to act in order to do that," said Atul Grover, AAMC's chief public policy officer in a July statement.
Congress is now mulling the Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act, which could add as many as 15,000 residency slots at medical schools across the country, especially for primary care physicians.
But in Tennessee, the doctor shortage may hit nonwhites hardest, according to a June 2012 study by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Institute.
Minorities, the study said, live in areas of the state where doctors' practices are full. They also prefer to see health care providers of their own race at a time and a shortage of minority providers exists around the country and state, the study said.
(c)2012 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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