CREDIT: American Academy of Family Physicians
The number of U.S. medical school graduates choosing to go into family medicine and primary care rose for the fourth consecutive year, according to a press release from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). That’s great news for the millions of Americans who will become newly insured under Obamacare and Medicare in the coming years, since many industry experts feared there wouldn’t be enough primary care physicians to meet their medical needs.
Family medicine, unlike more specialized medical fields, involves caring for patients in a comprehensive way that involves everything from diagnosing and treating a wide range of common illnesses to promoting preventative health measures that might prevent the need for more specialized care in the future. In 2009, only 58 percent of U.S. medical school graduates chose residencies in family medicine — but now more than 67 percent of first-year family medicine residents graduate from American medical schools.
“This is another indicator that medical students realize primary care is the foundation of health care,” said Dr. Perry Pugno, vice president for medical education at the AAFP, in a statement. “The number of students choosing family medicine… continues to increase, and the attendance at the AAFP’s National Conference for Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students has really increased. All of these point to a trend toward primary care careers.”
Many health experts have feared that America is in the midst of a widespread doctor shortage that may prevent millions of people from receiving essential primary care — especially as millions of Americans become insured for these types of services under Obamacare in 2014. Estimates from the Association of American Medical Colleges pegs the shortage at 13,000 doctors today and projects it to be ten times that number by 2024. The new numbers are cause for optimism — but doctors warn that it still may not be adequate to meet future needs.
“Taken together, these show the ship may be turning,” Pugno noted in his statement. “But it isn’t turning fast enough to meet future needs, given the demand that will grow as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of insurance coverage and the aging of our population.”
Even so, the surge in family doctors is also good news for Medicare. The Wall Street Journal had found that the number of doctors refusing to serve Medicare patients had increased almost three-fold between 2009 and 2012 due to uncertainty over reimbursement rates. But a survey commissioned by USA Today found that the number of U.S. physicians accepting new Medicare patients had risen by about 33 percent between 2007 and 2011, largely thanks to the influx of new primary care doctors highlighted by the AAFP. These doctors are more willing to accept Medicare patients than older physicians who are dropping out of the health care system.
New medical graduates’ interest in primary care and their willingness to take on Medicare patients may signal that young doctors understand the types of resources that will be needed under health reform. Recent evidence has shown that medical schools have also been changing the way they teach their students in response to Obamacare, emphasizing the sort of team-based comprehensive care that the law encourages and slowly shifting away from a model that encourages new doctors to choose specialty medical professions that may pay more than family medicine.