Print Friendly and PDFPrinter Friendly Version

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Investing in primary care

Kate Blocher

Staff Writer

Primary care health professionals play a vital role in keeping our families and our communities healthy. Their focus on preventive care and wellness is key to keeping us healthier in the long run. Despite the need for primary care physicians, there is a growing shortage of doctors in the field.

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that the nation would have a shortage of approximately 21,000 primary care physicians in 2015. Without action, experts project a continued primary care shortfall due to the needs of an aging population, and a decline in the number of medical students choosing primary care.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took the first step toward fixing this shortage by announcing a series of investments totaling $250 million that will help increase the number of health care providers and strengthen the primary care workforce. The investment was made possible by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which created a Prevention and Public Health Fund. The Fund was allocated $500 million for the fiscal year 2010 by the Obama Administration, half of which will be used to boost the number of primary care health workers.

This additional funding is expected to produce more than 16,000 primary care providers over the next five years. The Administration hopes to achieve this goal by:

• Creating additional primary care residency slots;

• Supporting physician assistant training in primary care;

• Increasing the number of trained nurse practitioners;

• Establishing new nurse practitioner-led clinics; and

• Encouraging states to plan for and address health professional workforce needs.

There will also be an increased focus on education and training. Grants will be given to educational institutes, such as community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, or historically black colleges that have produced high numbers of primary care providers. Repayments of loans, scholarships, and tax benefits will be provided to students who study to become primary care health professionals or practice in underserved rural and urban areas of the country.

Although the shortage will not be repaired immediately, by investing in primary care providers, we are acknowledging the vital importance of these professionals to the health and well-being of our nation.

As Secretary Sebelius said:

Primary care providers are on the front line in helping Americans stay healthy by preventing disease, treating illness, and helping to manage chronic conditions… These new investments will strengthen our primary care workforce to ensure that more Americans can get the quality care they need to stay healthy[.]