The Doctor Shortage and Nurses’ Role in Filling the Gaps

By Kathryn Norcutt
Doctor shortage could be intensified by the
Affordable Care Act
Despite how one may feel about the Affordable Care Act,
it is going to change the face of American medicine forever. For better or for
worse, once it is up and running in 2014 an estimated 30 million newly insured
people will have access to the health care system outside of the emergency
room. This is great news for anyone who works in or has been forced to visit
one of the thousands of overcrowded emergency rooms across the US, however, the
looming doctor shortage will loom even larger once those patients have access
to specialists in other parts of the hospital. 
Getting by the Fed cap
It’s easy to blame the government for just about every
problem, but since health care and the government are so deeply intertwined,
it’s difficult to sneeze without having to get approval from one federal
organization or another first. That having been said, the reality is that the
government holds the health care purse strings. Those strings have been
especially constricted when it comes to creating new doctors, let alone doling
out payments for Medicare and Medicaid, but that’s another story.
For the last 15 years, the government, who pays for a
large part of all of the residency programs through Medicare spending, has
capped the total number of new residents it pays for at 85,000 students.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, we are lacking around
16,000 primary care doctors across the US, and that number is projected to be
closer to 63,000 by 2015, unless we can find a way to either remove the cap or
fund more doctors as soon as humanly possible. Even if the cap was lifted today
and raised to 200,000 residency programs, we wouldn’t see its effects for
another five years or more. By then, we will have over 30 million new patients,
with nowhere close the number of doctors able to see them.
Where do we fill the gap?
Unless we can either import enough doctors magically
from around the world, or export our patients by 2014, someone is going to have
to provide medical care to our nation’s sick. Who will fill this gap varies
from hospital to hospital, but it is in large part being filled by nurses of all
types. Training a nurse is about 25 times less expensive and time consuming
than the $145,000 it takes to get the average doctor through residency. For the
cost of one fully trained general physician, we could have 25 or more fully
trained nurses and in much less time too.
As Angela K. Golden, President of the American Academy
of Nurse Practitioners puts it, “Four Decades of research show that nurse
practitioners provide high-quality, cost-effective, comprehensive,
patient-centered primary health care with excellent outcomes. In a growing
number of states, a nurse practitioner can own and operate an autonomous,
independent practice, not requiring any physician involvement.”
In short,
nurses are more than qualified to provide care for general practice cases both
in and out of the hospital. Honestly, for the average patient, they’re not
going to care whether or not they are being treated by a nurse or a doctor, as
long as they are getting treated at all.
The road ahead
Nurses everywhere have been stepping into more and more
diverse roles as doctors seem to be rarer and rarer. It’s not uncommon to be
admitted to a hospital and receive excellent care without ever meeting a
doctor. The doctor shortage may have changed the playing field for medical care
forever, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a silver lining for nurses. We
could be seeing the dawn of the Golden Age of nursing which will hopefully
provide coverage for the staggeringly wide gap between the upcoming number of
patients and care providers. The medical field, just like all fields, must
yield to the laws of supply and demand. As Daniel P. Moen, President and CEO of
Sisters of Providence Health System explains, “there’s got to be a leveling out
or equalization of supply and demand at some point.”
KathrynNorcutt has been an active member of the health care community for
over 20 years.  During her time as a
nurse, she has helped people from all walks of life and ages.  Now, Kathryn leads a much less hectic life
and devotes most of her free time to writing for RN Network, a site
specializing in travelnurse jobs.