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Opinion

June 12, 2014

In Our Opinion: Bill offers help on doctor shortages

Fifty years ago, they weren’t called “primary care physicians” or “family practitioners.” They were simply called doctors. 

If you were sick or not getting better; if you got hurt and needed help, you went to see them — or they came to see you. It didn’t much matter if it was a sore throat or a broken toe, a bad back or a headache that wouldn’t go away — the doctor was a jack-of-all-trades, called upon to address any number of ailments. 

House calls vanished years ago amid a sea of malpractice suits. And patients today wind up seeing one specialist about their throat, another about their toe and a third about their bad back. 

To get to those specialists, insurance companies usually require you to get a referral from your “primary care provider” — aka, your family doctor. But what if you don’t have one? 

According to Sen. Charles Schumer, who is among the sponsors of a bill designed to address the national doctor shortage, there are only 66 primary care doctors per 100,000 residents in Central New York. 

Locally, the SUNY Center for Health Workforce Studies reports that doctor availability is down as much as 27 percent (in Schoharie County). Even in Otsego County, where the doctor-patient ratio is better than the state average, doctor availability is still on the decline. 

The Resident Physician Shortage Act (of which Schumer is a sponsor) would address this problem by creating 15,000 Medicare-funded residency slots, giving priority to rural and underserved areas. 

But according to one local expert, that may not be enough. 

Dr. James Dalton, director of medical education at Bassett Medical Center, told The Daily Star that pumping more residency spots into the pipeline will only fix part of the problem. 

Dalton noted that the supply and demand concept is contributing to the shortage, too, as doctors seek out higher pay in urban areas or in more-lucrative fields. 

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