A State-Based Strategy For Expanding Primary Care Residency

As the health care system looks to improve overall health and reduce unnecessary spending, primary care physicians become increasingly critical. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) recognizes that primary care clinicians have the potential to “bend the cost curve” through care coordination and preventive health care for our increasingly diverse and aging population. However, there aren’t enough primary care physicians to meet this need — especially in rural or poor urban areas. Current estimates predict that by 2035, our country will face a shortage of more than 44,000 primary care physicians.

As in many other states, the people of New Mexico are already experiencing this shortage. In 2014, the state had 96 primary care shortage areas, including areas in 32 of 33 counties in the state. At least 220 new physicians are needed immediately to meet the demand for basic medical care. The state has responded with an innovative and cooperative effort that led to legislation that is already expanding access to care for the state’s neediest residents.

The National Shortage Of Primary Care Residency Slots

While new medical schools are opening and established schools are increasing enrollment across the nation, there’s a residency bottleneck in the physician pipeline in many states, especially in primary care. Most of the funding for the country’s 100,000 residency slots comes from the federal government as part of Medicare spending.

However, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act placed a cap on such graduate medical education spending, effectively freezing it at 1997 levels and often locking in the ratio of primary care to specialty residency positions found at many academic teaching hospitals. Despite the ACA’s recognition of the importance of primary care, that emphasis has not been reflected in growth in primary care residency positions nationwide.

Within the present payment system, specialty care is more lucrative than primary care, and hospitals may depend on residents, rather than attending physicians, to deliver specialty services in order to recapture financial losses in other areas. Most residencies are based at tertiary care medical centers, which are dominated by subspecialty services and offer fewer opportunities for training in primary care.

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