September 6, 2019 11:03AM

Looming Doctor Shortage Demands Innovative Solutions

The Association of American Medical Colleges projects a severe physician shortage by the year 2032, particularly in the primary care fields, as the population of patients as well as doctors continues to age, according to a report today by CNBC.com. AAMC projects the national primary care shortage will range from roughly 47,000 to 122,000.

The news report focused on Arizona, one of the fastest growing states in the union, which has a shortage of primary caregivers in every county. Arizona ranks 44thout of the 50 states in total active primary care providers (PCPs), at 77.9 per 100,000 population (the national average is 91.7 per 100,000) according to a recent report from the University of Arizona.

To deal with the problem efforts are underway in the state to expand residency training programs in order to produce more physicians. But that takes time and money. What is likely to have a more immediate beneficial effect is the state’s recent reform of its occupational licensing laws. Arizona this year became the first state to recognize occupational licenses in good standing granted by other states. This spares new migrants to the state who hold licenses in other states the hardship of repeating costly and time-consuming licensing procedures. As the CNBC report states:

Another way Arizona is hoping to help ease the shortage is by changing licensing laws. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed a Universal Licensing Recognition law that makes it easier for people licensed in other states to move to Arizona and gain similar accreditation. The measure is the first of its kind in the nation and impacts licensed occupations that range from barbers to physicians. Overall, 30% of occupations require a state-issued license.

This was indeed a good move on the part of the Arizona legislature and Governor and should be replicated in other states. But reforming scope of practice laws so that nurse practitioners, PAs, pharmacists, and other ancillary health care providers can provide services that are now the exclusive domain of people holding doctorate degrees will do even more to improve choice and access to patients in Arizona and across the country. One way to accomplish that would be to move to a system of private certification based upon proven proficiency and skill in a given area. In a recent paper from the Goldwater Institute, one of the co-authors, Murray Feldstein, MD, explains how this would work for health care practitioners:

A certified nurse practitioner, who has a bachelor’s in nursing, an RN license, and a master’s or doctorate in nursing, can do a vasectomy in Washington State. But in most states, that same individual must either fight a scope-of-practice battle in the legislature or go to medical school in order to perform a vasectomy. I am a board-certified urologist who has performed thousands of vasectomies. I am confident I could train an experienced, competent physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner to do the procedure within a few weeks and feel comfortable letting them do it independently.

It would also help for states to reform laws regarding the practice of telemedicine. Most states require telemedicine practitioners to obtain licenses in each state where they make their services available. Ironically, those states don’t prohibit their residents from traveling to the states where those practices are domiciled to receive treatment. Economist and Cato adjunct scholar Shirley Svorny investigated this issue in a Cato Policy Analysis, and suggested solutions. An easy reform would be to redefine the location of the patient-practitioner interaction from that of the patient to that of the practitioner, or for states to allow the practice of telemedicine by health care practitioners licensed by the state in which they are domiciled. 

The CNBC report featured comments by AAMC executive vice president Dr. Atul Grover, regarding the shortage. Dr. Grover called for more federal funding of training programs and for medical schools to expand their enrollments. It is unfortunate these other reform proposals were not mentioned.