Proponents of ObamaCare often tout the law as a means to extend health coverage to more Americans. Yet, more coverage may not necessarily mean more care for either the insured or the uninsured, with experts predicting that the law will only exacerbate a crisis that already exists in our health care system: an acute shortage of physicians. The numbers are disheartening, with our country set to have an estimated physician shortage of up to 125,000 by 2025.
While ObamaCare will almost certainly make the problem worse, the roots of this challenge actually boil down to two elements: our population is aging rapidly, as we know, and college graduates no longer want to become physicians. While less-well known, it is that second fact that threatens to most severely undermine health care in our country.
The Wall Street Journal recently compared two graduating classes from Harvard, one from the business school and the other from the medical school. After two years of business school, those graduates had paid an average of $100,000 in tuition and went on to jobs with an average salary of $120,000 and median signing bonuses of $20,000. After four years of medical school, those graduates had paid more than $200,000 in tuition (average per-student debt after medical school now tops $160,000) and went on to residencies of four or more years at salaries starting around $50,000 and escalating to a maximum of $60,000.
Looking at this data, it does not take a degree from Harvard to figure out why the number of applicants to the business school was more than twice that to the medical school. Simply put, young doctors, no matter how talented and hardworking, can barely pay their bills. Of course, there are thousands of young people who choose medicine as a profession not for the money, but because they want to make a difference. Yet, even many of these aspiring doctors are being discouraged from pursuing their dreams due to the mountains of paperwork, administrative hassles, and prohibitively high practice expenses that plague our health-care system – and that will only worsen under ObamaCare.
A recent survey of physicians by the Doctor Patient Medical Association found that 83 percent of respondents were thinking about quitting. One comment from a responding physician was: “Some days I just want to run to Africa or Mexico and just take care of sick people, and not have to explain myself to a dozen bureaucrats who don’t even know what I am doing.” This comment is discouraging and echoes a greater disillusion with the practice environment that I have heard from many Arizona physicians. It is no surprise that our most talented young students are less and less likely to choose this career path.
Two main things must happen to stem this tide. First, those who pay for care – such as insurance companies, Medicare, and Medicaid – must compensate physicians in a manner that reflects the valuable services they provide and the years of schooling they endured to acquire their vast technical knowledge. Second, we must enable physicians to make clinical decisions based on their medical knowledge, free from the fear of undue scrutiny by administrators and bureaucrats. I have always fought for lower regulatory burdens and fair payment for Medicare physicians, and I will continue to do so in my remaining time in the Senate.
It may be too late to avert the significant worsening of this crisis that will occur when the lion’s share of ObamaCare’s regulations come online in 2014. However, we can make some critical decisions in the near future to help stem the worst of it in the coming decade. We must create a practice environment that is friendlier to physicians; if we can make that happen, students may again view becoming a physician as an exciting career that offers the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to society and achieve economic success.
If we can agree that one of our goals for the U.S. health care system should be to provide quality care to as many people as possible, then there is no way around the fact that we simply must have more well-trained doctors. Having health insurance isn’t worth much if patients can’t even find qualified physicians to treat them.
Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees.