The new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson,told a Senate committee last week that he needed $17.6 billion over the next three years to hire some 1,500 doctors, 8,500 nurses and other clinicians to reduce the unconscionably long waiting times that many veterans now endure before they are able to see a doctor.
That news was bad enough, but the department’s problems are emblematic of an even deeper problem: a nationwide shortage of doctors, especially primary care doctors, and other health care professionals, that will only get worse in coming years. No less alarming, the current medical education system is ill-equipped to train the number of professionals needed.
Experts disagree over how bad the current shortages are. But virtually all agree that the problem is acute in rural areas and in poor urban neighborhoods. As of June 19, according to one estimate cited by analysts in the Department of Health and Human Services, there was a shortage of 16,000 primary care physicians in such underserved areas.
The Association of American Medical Colleges reiterated last weekan earlier warning that there will be a shortfall of 45,000 primary care physicians and 46,000 surgeons and medical specialists by 2020, leaving too few doctors to care for an aging population and for the millions of patients who will gain health coverage and seek treatment under the Affordable Care Act.