Massachusetts care hindered by physician shortages

A medical society report says practice environment in the state is deteriorating, hurting recruitment and retention of doctors.

By Damon Adams — Posted May 7, 2009

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Massachusetts is facing a growing health care problem: an aging physician population.

An annual report by the Massachusetts Medical Society warns that an aging work force will make it more difficult for patients to get access to care. About one in three of the state's doctors is 55 or older, and only 13% of the nearly 26,000 doctors are younger than 35.

"We know that the shortages are significant in the primary care specialties. We need to do a better job of ensuring that we have an adequate primary care work force," said Bruce Auerbach, MD, president of the medical society.

The findings, released April 15, are part of the society's yearly analysis of the state's physician practice environment. MMS issues an index that is a statistical compilation of nine factors that influence the practice climate, including median physician income, medical school applicants, professional liability and practice costs, and average hours spent on patient care.

The index dipped 1.5% in 2008 -- the 15th time in the past 17 years the measure has declined. Among the reasons for the drop are a 3.5% increase in the cost of maintaining a practice and a 5.3% hike in liability costs, according to the report (link).

In October 2008, the medical society released its 2008 Physician Workforce Study, which found that 12 of 18 specialties evaluated were in short supply. Internal and family medicine doctors were in critically short supply and experienced the highest degree of stress (link).

The study also reported that 52% of Massachusetts' medical residents move elsewhere once they complete training. Meanwhile, state health reforms have led to more insured patients.

"We need more medical student slots, and we need more medical residency slots," Dr. Auerbach said. "We need to do payment reform to do things to encourage people to go into the primary care field."

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