The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally affected every Alaskan, whether through the loss of a loved one, jobs disappearing, or getting sick themselves. The health and well-being of medical professionals in our community have also taken a significant toll, yet their struggle has gone unnoticed as they cared for patients on the frontlines at the height of the pandemic.
The past 18 months have begun to shed light on the burnout of doctors, nurses and others in the medical community tend to face. Through COVID, it was these individuals who risked their lives to save the lives of others, working long hours in some of the most challenging situations.
It is no wonder many medical professionals are struggling with the trauma and loss they experienced at their jobs and many still do. The tragic death of Dr. Lorna Breen underscores the difficult and sometimes fatal consequences that can occur when our caregivers’ health struggles largely go unnoticed.
This burnout and other factors have led to a shortage of doctors in hospitals and clinics across the country. As Americans grow older — including those in the medical community — there will be fewer doctors and more patients, if we don’t take immediate action to address the shortage of medical expertise. It is because of pandemic-related concerns, burn-out and exhaustion that many doctors may look to cut back their hours.
The pandemic didn’t cause a doctor shortage, it only exacerbated an existing problem in this country. In 2018 Alaska had a physician burnout rate of 29% — an alarming figure, and yet one of the lowest rates in the country. Furthermore, Alaska ranks fourth in the country when it comes to the number of health professional shortage areas, or HPSAs, with 301. That leaves many Alaskans vulnerable when it comes to health care accessibility.
New research shows this shortage is likely to get worse. A recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, projects that by 2034, there will be a shortage of as many as 48,000 primary care physicians, and a shortage of nearly 80,000 physicians. More must be done to ensure that we reverse this trend before a deficit of medical professionals puts lives at risk.
COVID-19 brought to awareness many inequalities that persist in our health care system, including the large number of rural, lower-income and generally underserved communities that need more robust health care infrastructure to stay healthy.
Luckily, Congress can bolster the number of medical professionals in several ways and, in doing so, can ensure that all Alaskans are able to find a doctor when they need one.
Physician training programs are the biggest hurdle to address the shortage. Medical students need at least one year of graduate medical education, or GME, or a residency before being granted a license to practice. Congress is considering the Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act, which would bring another 3,500 new doctors per year into the medical community. Additional legislation would also help turn the tide on doctor shortages and ensure there is an adequate number of medical professionals to meet patient demands.
President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes money to support increasing the number of medical professionals through more GME and other incentives. These initiatives taken together would be immensely helpful for every Alaskan and every American.
While we won’t solve the doctor deficit overnight, Congress must take steps to address physician shortages to safeguard the health of our medical professionals and guarantee every Alaskan will have access to a doctor when they’re in need of care.
Megan K. LeMasters Soule, M.D., is a family medicine doctor in Anchorage.
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