The role of primary care physicians in our healthcare system has never been more crucial. Communities nationwide rely on these physicians for essential preventive services and urgent care. However, both physicians and families continue to face challenges due to the exorbitant cost, unequal distribution, and limited accessibility of our healthcare system. There is a widespread agreement that the lack of investment in the primary care workforce is a significant factor contributing to the crisis in cost, equity, and quality.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), we face an estimated shortage of 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034. At the same time, both physicians and their patients are aging. The AAMC also notes that more than two of every five active physicians will be 65 or older within the next decade. Over that same span, meanwhile, the U.S. population is expected to grow to an estimated 363 million people — 42% of whom will be 65 or older.
These statistics highlight a pressing issue in our healthcare system – a crisis that threatens the accessibility and delivery of healthcare. To make matters worse, physicians are facing increasing burnout and administrative complexities, making it even more challenging to manage their practices effectively. Unfortunately, patients are bearing the brunt of this workforce shortage, struggling to find doctors in their communities and experiencing longer wait times and shorter visits. Their ability to address health challenges early on is compromised, which is particularly alarming for rural and underserved areas that already suffer from a shortage of physicians.
A potential solution to this complex problem already exists: the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) program. This program aims to attract and retain local physicians in underserved rural areas, addressing the issue of unequal distribution of healthcare resources across the country. With a track record of success, the THCGME program is in need of renewed support to continue making a positive impact.
According to the Baltimore Sun, to date, the THCGME program has trained more than 2,000 primary care physicians and dentists, 65% of whom are family physicians. And, THCGME graduates are more than twice as likely to serve in medically underserved communities than those in traditional GME-supported programs. Simply put, THCGME brings care to areas that most need it, then keeps it there.
As the program approaches its expiration date on September 30th, it is crucial for Congress to take action. Lawmakers have an opportunity not only to renew the THCGME program but also to put an end to the uncertainty caused by short-term reauthorizations. The time has come for Congress to permanently authorize the THCGME program and ensure its funding remains robust. Continual short-term reauthorizations only serve to create instability and act as a major deterrent for future doctors considering residencies in THCs, where patients are in desperate need of their care. To achieve this, Congress should pass the Doctors of Community (DOC) Act, a crucial step that would permanently authorize and expand the THCGME program.