John Henning Schumann is a writer and doctor in Tulsa. He runs the Internal Medicine residency at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine. He created the blog GlassHospital.com and is on Twitter @GlassHospital.

Despite its complexities and its politics, I support the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”).  As I’ve written elsewhere, I think it would be both morally and economically wrong for Governor Fallin and the Oklahoma legislature to opt out of the ACA’s vast Medicaid expansion – a position shared by Oklahoma Policy Institute.  So if Oklahoma does the right thing and opts to expand Medicaid for adults with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level, what will happen?

Oklahoma faces a serious shortage of primary care access. The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the agency in charge of administering Medicaid, recently compiled county-by-county maps, color-coded to classify areas of severe physician shortage based on presumptive levels of Medicaid expansion.  At a glance, these maps reveal something we already know: rural areas are hurting for physicians and populous counties seem to have more capacity.  In my opinion, however, the maps don’t paint a full picture of the eventual shortfall.

First, the math in round numbers: There are 600,000 uninsured Oklahomans. Medicaid expansion will cover about a third of them. (The remainder will be obligated under the law to buy insurance on the open market–hopefully, from a robust and economical online insurance exchange–or pay the just-deemed-constitutional penalty, er, tax.)  So far, so good.

But herein lies the problem. Oklahoma’s primary care “system” is already stretched thin. We are at or near the bottom in the number of primary care doctors per capita. A fixed supply of primary care doctors coupled with an enormous increase in demand will result in a huge bottleneck of newly-insured patients who will wait lengthily for appointment slots.

Massachusetts, the state that made “Romneycare” law in 2006, is flush with doctors and academic medical centers. Yet despite an ‘uninsurance’ rate of 5 percent (the lowest in the country), Massachusetts struggles to provide access to primary care to its citizens. The Massachusetts Medical Society periodically offers status reports on access to care, as in this 2011 report demonstrating that in spite of achieving ‘near universal’ insurance,

  • 51% of internal medicine practices and 53% of family practices are closed to new patients (due to capacity limitation)
  • Of those that remain open to new patients, the average wait time to see an internist is 48 (business) days, or 9+ weeks
  • Most alarmingly, while 85% of the state’s internists accept Medicare, only 53% accept MassHealth (i.e. Medicaid).

As you can see, even expanding access by giving folks in Oklahoma the coin of insurance doesn’t guarantee entrance to the realm.

Sixty-six of our 77 counties contain over 200 designated health professional shortage areas (HPSAs). The venerable New England Journal of Medicine published an article detailing a construct called the “access challenge index.” How’d Oklahoma do? We topped the list as most-challenged to care access if and when Medicaid expands.

How can we address the shortage?  It won’t be easy.

Training doctors takes more than a decade. Medical schooling takes four years (after achieving a bachelor’s degree). To become board-certified in internal medicine, family medicine, or pediatrics (primary care fields) takes an additional three years of residency training. Add college time to that, and you’re looking at a pipeline of eleven years minimum to create a doctor.

Couldn’t we train more doctors?

Actually, the number of medical schools in the U.S. and Canada has increased by more than a dozen in the last decade, raising the number of graduates significantly. The problem is at the residency level.  Due to the Balanced Budget Act passed in the mid-1990s, the number of residency slots nationally has been capped at 1997 levels.

Today’s residency graduates are also less inclined to open their own practices, due to increasing overhead, regulatory requirements, and a lower tolerance for risk. Newly minted doctors are more likely to become employees of hospitals or large medical groups.  The rise of “hospitalists,” while a boon to hospital quality and safety (and physician lifestyle), has further diminished the number of doctors practicing office-based primary care.

Look no further than the example in my field, internal medicine. In the program I administer the OU School of Community Medicine (OU-Tulsa), we train an average of 15 internists/year (OSU has eight slots/year). Of the most recent graduating class, four went into subspecialty fellowships (further training in fields like cardiology and nephrology). Nine have chosen to become hospitalists. One decided to practice office-based internal medicine. In Texas.

Given the issues facing us in the production of more doctors, we simply must look elsewhere to expand primary care access.

One answer is a vast expansion of other, non-physician providers: physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). These individuals are trained in a shorter timeframe and are able to handle most of what a primary care doctor can provide. In addition, the cost of their education is significantly less. The School of Community Medicine at OU and TU have combined to create a very successful and competitive PA program that is now three years old.

The other way to expand access involves changes in how care is delivered.  We are slowly but surely moving away from the model of one patient, one doctor to team-based care, group visits for patients with chronic disease, and a greater leveraging of technology (so-called “mHealth,” i.e. using mobile platforms) to substitute for traditional office visits.

As the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the ensuing Supreme Court battle have demonstrated, we are in a period of great upheaval in American health care. Oklahoma is at a crossroads, and it’s imperative that we embrace opportunities to confront the challenges that will determine our collective health future.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.