Access to physicians is an issue that has grabbed headlines in recent years due to a predicted physician shortage. Demand for physicians has skyrocketed since the Affordable Care Act gave millions of people healthcare coverage for the first time, and that demand is only expected to increase as the Baby Boomers age and need more care.
The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of 46,000 to 90,000 physicians by 2025, and several solutions have been proposed to help solve this issue. Medical schools are increasing their class sizes, states are giving greater autonomy to mid-level providers, and alternative sites of care, such as walk-in clinics, are being promoted, just to name a few. This year, watch for emphasis to be placed on multi-state licensing and telemedicine as ways to increase access to providers.
In 2016, we expect additional states to enact the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact during their legislative sessions, joining the 12 states that have already passed the legislation. The compact streamlines the process for physicians to obtain licenses to practice in multiple states, which would be especially helpful for both patients and providers near state lines. The predicted physician shortage has been particularly concerning for rural areas, where access to physicians is often an issue already. Since the compact is being promoted as a key solution for rural and underserved areas, watch for these states to be especially determined to enact the legislation.
The Interstate Medical Licensure Compact also makes it easier for physicians to provide services via telemedicine, which has been proposed as another solution to solve the issue of access. According to the American Telemedicine Association, about 15 million patients received care via telehealth in 2015, and this number is only likely to grow as more physicians begin offering these services.
In 2016, watch for more health systems to begin offering telemedicine services using their own employed physicians. Over the past few years, health systems have been rapidly acquiring physicians for their employed groups, so rather than contracting with an outside telemedicine company, systems can take advantage of the network they already have in place. Having employed physicians treating patients via telemedicine also widens the reach of health systems and would likely increase patient flow, which is appealing to hospitals.
Physicians are also seeing telemedicine, and the increased access it provides, as a way to keep patients healthier. This is especially important now that physician groups are being held accountable—sometimes even financially—for outcomes and costs as value-based models such as patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations become more widespread. Telemedicine could prove to be an effective way for physicians to ensure that their patients with chronic diseases are adhering to their treatments and prescriptions, since patients can more easily check-in and ask questions without having the hassle of making a trip to the doctor’s office.
Only time will tell what ultimately proves to be the panacea for solving the issue of access to providers, and if the physician shortage is actually as dire as predicted. But 2016 could be the year that notable progress is made towards solving the problem. And the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact and telemedicine both have the potential to be game changers when it comes to increasing access to physicians.