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Mon, Feb. 17

How communities are addressing the physician shortage

The physician you visit for medical check-ups, the specialist who treats your relative's heart condition and the doctor who monitors your child's asthma are among a shrinking pool of providers nationwide. With demand increasing for family medicine and physician specialists, healthcare leaders are taking steps designed to both attract doctors and benefit patients. For example, many hospitals are:

• Establishing "centers of excellence" that provide physician specialists the resources to treat patients with complex conditions (e.g., heart ailments and cancer);

• Investing in technology as well as professionals (nurses and technologists) in order to ensure the delivery of high-quality care at the hospital; and

• Providing medical practice administrative support so physicians can focus on patient care rather than paperwork.

The process of recruiting qualified physicians also may extend beyond hospitals to involve their communities. When reviewing career opportunities, physicians are likely to look for excellent schools for their children, recreational amenities for their families and employment opportunities for their spouses.

How severe is Arizona's physician shortage? According to a report published in 2007 by Arizona State University's Center for Health & Information Research, Arizona's ratio of physicians to population improved from an earlier study. However, the report noted that the state still needs more physicians. Additionally, in 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Arizona 42nd in the nation for the number of medical doctors per 100,000 population.

A major contributor to our nation's physician shortage is the inability of medical schools to graduate new physicians quickly enough to meet the public's growing needs. The education and training requirements for physicians are among the most demanding of any occupation. Physicians pursue four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of internship and residency, depending on the specialty. Even if medical schools were able to increase their enrollment levels today, it would be many years before these students would enter practice.

Finally, our nation's aging population impacts the physician shortage. Thirteen percent of the U.S. population was age 65 or older in 2010, and that number is projected to grow to 20 percent by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Older adults may have multiple health problems that require them to use the healthcare system more than younger people.

Hospitals throughout the U.S., and their respective communities, are working hard to attract and retain qualified physicians. The winning equation may be a strong healthcare community and excellent medical programs as well as a welcoming environment and exceptional quality of life.

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