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Study Reports U.S. Doctor Shortage Is Not as Bad as Previously Believed

Update Date: Nov 05, 2013 11:52 AM EST
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According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of medical school applicants and enrollments reached a record high in 2013. Based from the previous record set in 1996, this year's numbers grew by 6.1 percent. Although the number of medical students has increased within the U.S., there is still a fear of a shortage of physicians. However, in a new study released yesterday conducted by the non-profit RAND Corporation, researchers stated that the doctor shortage is not as bad as people feared.

Due to the Affordable Care Act, experts predicted that since more patients will have insurance and subsequently, access to doctors, there would be a shortage of roughly 45,000 primary care physicians by 2025. In the new study, policy researcher David Auerbach explained that those estimations were based on the idea that health care practices and facilities would not adjust to the changes in health care. However, Auerbach and colleagues found that nurse practitioners and physician assistants would most likely adopt new roles and take on more responsibilities, such as following up on patients, which would cut the shortage of physicians by 50 percent.

"Projections suggest that if nothing changes in the delivery of primary care, the United States may face a substantial shortage of primary care physicians and surpluses of nurse practitioners and physician assistants by 2025," researchers wrote according to Forbes. "Yet plausible shifts in primary care delivery models substantially affect those projections. Increases in diffusion of the medical home and of the nurse-managed health center would both work to reduce demand for physicians."

The research team calculated that there would be a surplus of 34,000 nurse practitioners and a surplus of 4,000 physician assistants. These medical professionals will help relieve some of the physicians' workload if the health care system chooses to expand patient-centered medical homes and health centers headed by nurses.

First, in medical homes, if a physician, a physician's assistant or a nurse practitioner can effectively lead a team of medical professionals, the team can cover a larger number of patients. The team could compose of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists and social workers, who know how to use electronic health records to coordinate care more efficiently. Second, in nurse-managed health centers, putting nurse practitioners that are affiliated with academic medical centers, in charge could provide specialty care, especially for people in low-income areas.

"I think these changes can matter quite a lot," Auerbach said reported by USA Today. "It's sort of a given: If you use nurse-managed health centers, you're not using a lot of doctors. But patient-centered medical homes, I guess we really didn't know the outcome."

The researchers stated that even though they have found potential positive changes that would cut the physicians' shortage rate, more research would need to be done to ensure that this new level of care is effective in saving lives. The report was published in the journal, Health Affairs

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