Current Issue of Health Affairs Looks at Provider Shortages
A critical shortage of nurses, doctors and pharmacists could "undermine patient care" just as members of the baby boom generation begin to require health services the most, according to studies released today in the journal Health Affairs, the Boston Herald reports. John Iglehart, editor of the journal, which devoted the current issue to studies and articles on health care workforce concerns, said, "We are seeing a mass exodus [of health care providers] just as the baby boomer generation is aging and requiring more from the health care system." One study found that in 2000, U.S. schools produced fewer nursing graduates than in previous years, and the country had a shortfall of 110,000 registered nurses. However, 120,000 registered nurses were either not working at all or working in other fields, which often offer better hours, "more rewarding work" and higher wages.
Another study found that although the number of U.S. medical school graduates increased 12% from 1980 to 2000, the country's population increased 24% during that period, creating a shortage of primary care physicians, particularly minority doctors. A third study in the journal determined that vacancy rates at U.S. pharmacies range from 7% to 18%, leading to a greater reliance on pharmacy technicians and assistants, who receive "highly variable and often limited" training. Dr. Fitzhue Mullan, a Health Affairs editor, said that given many of the studies' findings, policymakers need to pass laws or regulations to encourage more people to pursue medical careers. "You can't suddenly make doctors and nurses. You have to do it in a planned way," Mullan said (Lasalandra, Boston Herald, 9/5).
A "diversity gap" in the U.S. medical system is growing, and affirmative action programs at U.S. medical schools are "critical" to increasing the number of minority physicians, according to one of the Health Affairs articles, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. "We need more physicians who look like America and are more likely to serve those communities that are currently underserved," Dr. Jordan Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges and lead author of the article, said. The article notes that minority enrollment in U.S. medical schools peaked in 1996 at 2,340 students nationwide, compared to 1,500 students in 1990. But partly because of California's Proposition 209, which was passed in 1996 and bans affirmative action, the number of minority medical school students declined to 1,912 in 2001. The article concludes that the "best means available for closing the diversity gap is to use affirmative, race-conscious decision making in higher education in general and in medical and other health profession schools in particular" (Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/5).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.