Utah needs more physicians

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:46 PM

Sheryl Allen

We all have the same expectation. When we need health care, we want it as soon as possible. We don't want medical appointments delayed because the physician has too many patients. But this could be our future.

Utah needs more physicians. According to a recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, by 2020 there will be a shortage of at least 91,000 physicians in the United States. Utah will be hit hard. Only three states will have fewer physicians per capita than the Beehive State.

The physician shortage will intensify when national insurance coverage becomes effective in 2014. The large bubble of baby boomers reaching age 65 will compound the stress on the state's health care providers.

Something can be done to help ensure accessible health coverage -- increase the class size at the University of Utah Medical School. The University of Utah is a steady pipeline of health care providers for all of us.

Class size at the School of Medicine is currently 82 students. It was 102 prior to the recession. It could be expanded to 122 students at a total cost of $12.2 million or restored to 102 students at a cost of $6.5 million. Utah-trained physicians have a proven record of staying in Utah. Two-thirds of the physicians in Utah trained at the University of Utah either in medical school, residency, or a fellowship.

Legislators considered expanding the U's medical school class during the 2012 session, but after the recent recession, many pent-up needs existed, and extra funding for physician training was not available. It typically takes seven to 10 years to fully train a new physician: four years in medical school, three to five years in residency, and one to two years in a fellowship for sub-specialty training. Because of the time lap, the effects of the medical school class size reduction have not yet been felt by Utah health care consumers.

An additional $6 or $12 million is a hefty investment. Total state funding for the School of Medicine comprises $26.5 million, or about 4 percent of the annual budget. The average state support across public medical schools in the U.S. is 14 percent. An increase in tuition is not the answer. In-state tuition at the medical school is above the national average at $29,652 per year. Out-of-state tuition is more than $55,000 per year.

Last year, 1,500 applicants vied for 82 slots, a ratio of 18:1. At least 75 percent of the medical school class each year are Utah residents. For the current class, that's 61 of 82 slots. Eight students are from Idaho under an agreement with that state. Most out-of-state students must show strong Utah ties, represent an underserved population, or enter the M.D./Ph.D. program.

Consumers spend a sizeable chunk of their income on medical care, 16 percent of total income. That's more than food and clothing combined, which make up 11 percent. Don't we want that personal investment to go to an adequate supply of well-trained physicians?

In 2011, Utahns ranked fourth in an index ranking quality of life issues after safety and security, public schools, air and water quality.

Accessibility is critical in quality health care, and that requires physicians that can meet our health care needs without unnecessary delay.

Please tell your legislative and gubernatorial candidates that quality, accessible health care is important to Utah's future. Ask them to commit themselves to expansion of the University of Utah's medical school class in 2013.

Sheryl Allen is a former member of the Utah House of Representatives and a healthcare consumer. She lives in Bountiful.

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