Primary-care physicians are in demand

This time of year, recent high school graduates are shopping for supplies, packing their bags and perusing brochures and course listings from their selected college or university.

Freshman orientation is just around the corner. It makes me wonder how many, like my younger self, are considering careers in primary-care medicine?

To be sure, the practice of medicine faces some interesting challenges, ranging from political to scientific to socioeconomic. Yet there has perhaps been no better time to consider a career in medicine.

It is yet unclear exactly what effect recent health-care reform efforts will have on the medical workforce. However, the combination of expanded Medicaid coverage in many states (including Colorado) and the requirement for most Americans to carry health insurance starting in 2014 will certainly increase demand on the health-care system.

Add to this the fact that the aging baby-boom generation is adding millions of new Medicare enrollees each year. As our population ages, the demand for medical care will continue to increase.

The argument for a robust system of primary care is strong. Many professional organizations, including physician and hospital groups, advocate the importance of a “medical home” model of health care.

With increasing specialization, in some respects our health-care system has become more fragmented. Maintaining ties with a primary-care medical home helps patients to navigate our complex health system. This has the potential to enhance continuity and quality of care and hopefully contribute to better patient satisfaction.

An analysis published last month by the Association of American Medical Colleges draws attention to the gap between demand for qualified physicians and the number of new students entering the medical field. It cites not only the aging American population and addition of 32 million new insurance enrollees under the Affordable Care Act but also an aging physician workforce as factors in the projected shortfall.

It is estimated that by 2020, the physician workforce demand will exceed the national supply of qualified physicians by more than 91,000 providers. More than half of this shortfall will be in primary-care medical specialties.

To address this need, enrollment in accredited U.S. medical schools is increasing and is already up 18 percent since 2002. Medical school enrollment is projected to increase 30 percent by the 2017-18 academic year (the class for which today’s entering college freshmen would be applying to medical school).

In an uncertain economy, many young college graduates are struggling to find work. Medicine offers a measure of job and financial security. Moreover, medical science is on the cutting edge of innovation and provides a wealth of intellectual stimulation.

The practice of primary-care medicine offers opportunities to build rewarding relationships with individual patients and with communities. The effect of a health-care provider’s work on a daily basis is often palpable.

There are many exciting opportunities for those preparing to enter college. I encourage more young people to consider a career in primary-care medicine.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.

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