Americans facing a shortage of primary care doctors

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT)-As Americans age and with reforms in health care coming, we face a huge shortage of Family Medicine trained physicians.

"I like learning about everything essentially . So I didn't want to be stifled with just one specialty." says Dr. Tim McNamara.

Dr. McNamara used to be an airline pilot. He has been a family medicine doctor with St. Bernards First Care clinics for just over a year.

McNamara says many new doctors specialize in order to recoup their med school expenses.

"You still have to live, you still have to pay back these school loans." McNamara said. "People initially see the lure of that as I can make more money in a shorter amount of time and pay this back."

According to the American Academy of Medical Colleges, family doctors can earn up to about 200-thousand dollars a year. That's about half the annual salary of a specialist.

The AHEC program located at St. Bernards trains family care physicians for rural locations.

Dr. Shane Speights says a general practitioner has to know about a lot of medical conditions versus just one area.

Speights says one reason med students don't go into family medicine is because it's harder and the rewards lower. "It is difficult." he says, "To be a primary care physician rather than a specialist because you have to know more about everything rather than a lot about 1 area."

Speights says a doctor in a small rural clinic will run the gauntlet in a day of appointments.

"You may have to see grandma's toenail fungus and a six-month-old with a fever. You may have to see the pregnant lady at 36 weeks that's having abdominal pain. And oh by the way Uncle Joe has M.S."

Speights says each class of new medical students is different.

Speights, "It varies from year to year. And there seem to be trends as far as though who are interested in primary care and those who are not."

Dr. Andrea Bourne, a 2nd year resident from Paragould in the AHEC program, had just finished up delivering a baby when I spoke with her.

Dr. Bourne says the wide range of things a family pracitioner has to deal with was a big reason she got into medicine.

"You know we're really able to take care of the whole family literally and that's the favorite part about my job.Bourne said. Some people have a genuine interest in one specific kind of medicine and that's their life's passion. But for me I enjoy it all and I am glad I get to see a little bit of everything."

To address the shortage, several medical schools across the nation are opening just to train primary care physicians.

Nationwide healthcare reform is expected to give 30 million more Americans health coverage in two years. They can't all go to emergency rooms for head colds.

Dr. Bourne says there really is a shortage of all kinds of doctors. "Encouraging young people period to go into medicine is going to result in more physicians."

Unfortunately, this situation does not seem like it can resolve itself.

Dr. McNamara, "As more people get insurance and actually seek out services of a primary care physician, that's only going to get tougher. "

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