The Doctor Shortage

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Health Reform: Democrats promise their plan will improve care at lower cost while thinning the ranks of the uninsured. How will they do this with fewer doctors?

America's population is 305 million. If the Democrats are correct about the number of uninsured, roughly 260 million are covered by a health care plan. When the insured — and the uninsured who use the traditional method of paying out of pocket — are sick, they are treated by 800,000 physicians.

It would be foolish to believe that today's already stretched doctor-patient ratio will remain stable. In the near future we will have fewer doctors treating a growing population.

Physician search firm Merritt, Hawkins & Associates estimates that by 2020 we'll need 90,000 to 200,000 more doctors than we'll have then. As alarming as that estimate is, it could be low.

Last August, our IBD/TIPP Poll found that 45% of doctors would consider leaving their practices or taking early retirement if the Democrats' version of reform were to become law.

Last month, 26% of physicians responding to a Web poll on Sermo.com, which calls itself "the largest online physician community," said they had been forced to close, or were considering closing, their solo practices.

Reasons include "low and delayed reimbursements, problems with management companies, and a lack of business/practice management education," as well as high malpractice insurance costs.

Not every doctor who told these polls that he or she would consider leaving the field will do so. Some will go into group practices and others move on to positions at hospitals and in the military. Another group will change nothing.

Even if half followed through with their threats, our care will suffer. If the Democrats' plans become law, fewer than 700,000 physicians would be available to treat a patient population growing in size, aging in years, shunning medical education and receiving "free" health care or insurance coverage from the government in increasing numbers.

The result will be longer wait times to see a doctor and a decline in the high quality of care Americans are accustomed to as overworked physicians try to keep up.

To see how this works in reality, look at the Canadian and British government health systems that encourage unnecessary doctor visits with the illusion of free care. Both have long, and sometimes deadly, wait times. Neither provides treatment as high in quality as what's found in the U.S, where the system is supposedly broken.

With demand for doctors already outstripping supply, the last thing we need is to aggravate the situation with poorly thought-out public policy.

Washington has meddled in health care too much already.

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