EDITORIAL: Poor prognosis

Future physician need debated, but Texas shortage is very real

The UTRGV medical school couldn’t have come at a better time, no matter what the experts say.

After years of countless reports predicting shortages of healthcare professionals, a national survey released last month by the Health Policy Institute at the Texas Medical Center in Houston challenges estimates that have been made for years about the shrinking number of physicians relative to the growing U.S. population, especially the increasing number of Americans who are living longer than previous generations. The Association of American Medical Colleges recently predicted that this country will have a shortage of about 121,000 doctors within the next decade, for example.

The Texas Medical Center Survey of 750 doctors and 2,000 healthcare consumers across all 50 states, however, found that most doctors weren’t convinced that predicted shortages were inevitable. The consumers generally reported that they had little trouble finding the treatment they needed and expressed confidence that their future needs would be met.

It must be noted, however, that the survey focused on doctors’ and patients’ opinions, while the predicted shortages have been reached by crunching numbers including current physician and population numbers and predictions based on population trends, predicted medical school enrollments and other factors.

They also don’t reflect the shortages in healthcare professionals that already exist. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, currently has 49,000 unfilled openings for doctors and other medical professionals nationwide.

Those shortages are reflected in veterans’ ability to access medical care they need. While performance has improved at Rio Grande Valley clinics in the past two years, veterans still have to wait an average of 16 days to see a doctor at the McAllen VA clinic and 22 days at the Harlingen facility.

Similar shortages exist in private practice as well. The AAMC recently reported that Texas ranks 47th out of the 50 states in having enough physicians to meet current needs; 24 of Texas’ 254 counties report just one doctor practicing within their boundaries.

Obviously, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, which was founded five short years ago and already has more than 200 students and another 200 working residents and fellows, will help meet future needs for doctors, especially in South Texas, where the ratio of doctors to the general population traditionally is lower than the national average. Local community colleges also have strong nursing programs to help meet similar shortages in support staff.

Lawmakers, both in Congress and state legislatures, also should gather information that could help them address requests to mitigate doctor shortages by giving nurses and other healthcare workers greater authority to diagnose, treat and perhaps even prescribe medication when a doctor isn’t available.

Whether of not people expect future shortages, they already exist in many areas including the Valley, and we should look for ways to fill the need by making healthcare education more attractive, available and affordable.