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VOL. 127 | NO. 154 | Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Survey: 34 Pct. Of Physicians to Leave Medical Practice

By Aisling Maki

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A new nationwide survey of U.S. physicians shows that 34 percent say they will leave the practice of medicine in the next decade, just as millions of Americans newly insured under the Affordable Care Act will seek more access to medical care.

In addition, the first of the baby boomers turned 65 last year, and the need for more physicians will only intensify as the population ages.

Atlanta-based Jackson Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest health care staffing companies, conducted the study based on physician surveys between March and June, just prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding much of the Affordable Care Act.

The study found that in 2012 alone, 16 percent of physicians are transitioning to part-time work, retiring, leaving medicine or considering retiring or leaving medicine this year.

“Physicians are retiring in large numbers just as baby boomers are starting to turn 65,” Richard L. Jackson, chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare, said in a statement. “That creates a real health care access problem. Many are demoralized and weighing their options.”

According to the study, the primary reasons doctors cite for leaving medicine are economic and political. Fifty-six percent of those who said they’d retire or leave medicine this year cited economic factors, such as medical malpractice and overhead costs, while 51 percent cited not wanting to practice medicine in the era of health reform.

However, it’s not just baby boomers leaving the profession; some younger doctors also said they were considering leaving medicine this year. Fifty-five percent of those who said they would leave or are strongly considering leaving by the end of 2012 were younger than 55.

Those younger doctors cited the same reasons for wanting to leave practice: high costs and health care reform.

According to the survey, specialists are more likely to leave the profession in the next decade. Looking at oncologists and hematologists, 57 percent said they would retire by 2022.

Over the next decade, 49 percent of both ear, nose and throat specialists, and general surgeons said they would retire; 45 percent of cardiologists said they would retire; and 42 percent of urologists said they would retire.

Compounding the problem, the nation is also facing a serious shortage of primary care physicians, whose salaries are typically lower than those of specialists.

Time and money are formidable barriers to turning out new physicians, particularly primary care doctors – many of whom graduate from medical school with tremendous student loan debt and subsequently seek higher salaries in order to pay it off more quickly.

The Memphis area’s health care system is already bursting at the seams, and industry experts have expressed concern about how already overwhelmed practitioners will meet the increased demand for care – especially given the preponderance for chronically poor health among West Tennesseans.

Dr. Steven Coulter, president of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Institute, said that under health care reform, Shelby County alone will see a demand for 145,000 additional primary care office visits.

“Unfortunately, although the new law is going to cover about another 600,000 to 700,000 new people in the state of Tennessee, it doesn’t add any doctors, hospitals or nurse practitioners,” he said.

While the expanding roles of mid-level practitioners such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners – whose education is a faster track, but who can perform many duties of physicians – will serve to fill some gaps, U.S. health care systems might more often look abroad to fill the roles of specialist physicians.

Dr. Michael Lachina, chief medical officer at Saint Francis Healthcare in Memphis, said U.S. hospitals are seeing more international candidates – who typically don’t incur the massive debt that keeps American medical school graduates’ hands tied – applying for open primary care position

“We don’t intentionally reach out to other countries to fill some of the slots; it’s just a natural phenomenon that the majority of those applying happen to be foreign-trained,” Lachina said. “They’re abundant and always eager to fill these slots.”

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