AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog


Solving the Physician Shortage: Should it be Left to an Act of Congress?

Since 1997, the number of physicians entering the workforce each year has essentially been capped, while the demand for everything from hip replacements to treatments for diabetes to angioplasties has soared with our growing and aging population. Now, the Obama administrations newly proposed budget seeks to spend an additional $5.23 billion over the next decade to manufacture new physicians. While this sounds like a lot of money, given the magnitude of the doctor shortage issue, it won’t be nearly enough to solve the shortage problem on its own merits. The proposal is designed to swell the ranks of primary care doctors, those family physicians, general internists, and pediatricians that constitute the healthcare workforce that is predicted to experience the greatest shortage of all the medical disciplines.

But primary care is not the only medical care discipline that is facing future short falls.  According to a study by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), by 2025 the demand for neurologists will far outnumber the supply, creating a 19 percent disparity in the number of doctors needed to adequately care for all patients. Those who suffer with neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s will have to wait longer to see a specialist.

“The doctor shortage is worse than most people think,” says Steven Berk, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine at Texas Tech University. “The population is getting older, so there’s a greater need for physicians. At the same time, physicians are getting older, too, and they’re retiring earlier,” Berk says. And graying doctors, nearly half the nation’s 830,000 physicians are over age 50, are seeing fewer patients than they did four years ago.

The flow of doctors entering the market each year is determined by the number of U.S. residency positions, chiefly in teaching hospitals. Those positions are funded primarily by the program that oversees Medicare and Medicaid. In 1997, the federal government essentially froze spending on residency slots, limiting the number to around 100,000 over three-to-four years, and in turn freezing the number of newly licensed physicians available for hire each year to around 26,000. Over the past 17 years, a few hospitals have established new residency programs for primary care doctors, raising the number to around 27,000, or a less than 4% increase. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has risen by 50 million, or almost 20%. The American Association of Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. will face a shortage of 46,000 primary care doctors by 2020, equivalent to one-quarter of everyone practicing in that category today.

The Affordable Care Act promises to magnify the problem but does attempt to address some of the issues to help stem its effect on the shortage by allocating an additional $1.5 billion in funding for the National Health Services Corps, which provides support to health care professionals in exchange for their service in areas with a more prevalent shortage. The law also puts more money toward training in hopes of increasing the primary care workforce and it offers more graduate positions for primary care doctors and more scholarships. It even offers a 10% bonus to primary care doctors who agree to see Medicare patients through 2015.

But many in the medical care industry do not see the solution reserved for government legislation alone. “Keep in mind the Affordable Care Act didn’t create this crisis,” said Dr. Reid Blackwelder, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “We’ve got an aging population that needs more care and a growing population.”

Many believe that new technologies will extend the reach of medicine in ways that will ameliorate the shortage problem. Health care professionals can serve more people by using telemedicine technologies to examine, treat and monitor patients remotely as well as providing patients increased access to advanced stroke care. These technologies are already keeping patients out of hospitals and doctors’ offices and providing improved recovery results. Creative new ways medicine is delivered, such as the use of “medical homes” and “accountable-care organizations” to better coordinate patient care, are also expected to improve efficiency and keep patients out of the hospital. Telemedicine enhances productivity and outreach while cutting costs, it improves diagnosis and care management in remote areas, and it reduces unnecessary care. The technology also strengthens partnerships between community based hospitals and advanced regional care centers.

“I understand there is a sense of worry, and change can be scary, but our present system is broken,” Dr. Blackwelder said. “We pay twice as much for our health in this country and have worse outcomes than other countries. Looking to government to fix a problem often harbors complexity, inefficiencies and long-term implementation of solutions. Dr. Blackwelder’s opinion reflects that of many other medical industry professionals, “We will have to start coming up with creative solutions to this problem, ones that won’t have to wait for an act from Congress.”



Telemedicine as Beneficial as In-Person visits for Parkinson’s Patients

A recent article in Fierce Health Information Technology reports on a study that indicates that Parkinson’s patients who received treatment via telemedicine did not show a decline in quality of life when compared to typical in-clinic patients.  The new research published in JAMA Neurology aims to address the problem of the prevalent burden of neurological disorders paired with limited access to care by testing home telemedicine for patients with Parkinson’s’ disease.

Skeptics have long argued that taking the face time out of the medical care experience between doctor and patient would result in a lesser quality of care being delivered to patients and some physicians remain adamant that healthcare by remote control is no substitute for in-person doctor visits, particularly when a patient needs care for a serious problem.  While there still remains significant and justifiable sentiments among medical professionals that in-person visits with a doctor plays a crucial role in the quality of health care, the evidence is beginning to indicate that the advantages of telemedicine is chipping away at the real impact these in-person visits have on the quality of care.

The study’s authors admitted that a larger trial would be needed to show if clinical benefits of telemedicine are comparable to in-person care.  They also reported that telemedicine patients, on average, were saved roughly 100 miles of travel and 3 hours of time.  Lead author Ray Dorsey, an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in the announcement. “If this proof-of-concept study is affirmed, the findings open the door to a new era where anyone anywhere can receive the care she or he needs. It appears we can use the same technology Grandma uses to chat with her grandson to provide her with valuable medical care in her home.”

There continues to remain many obstacles in the path of full blown acceptance of telemedicine as a quality health care delivery mechanism, but some long standing negative perceptions are beginning to fade away in response to increased successful utilization of the new technology.  With the promise of new, more accurate, comprehensive and sophisticated medical devices making their way into the market place, many more, well established opponents are sure to be challenged to defend their long standing positions and practices as it relates to delivering health care to their patients.



Think of Your Brain!

It is without a doubt the most vital organ in the human body, but too often we neglect the importance of taking good care of our brain. The development and organization of the brain are incredibly complex, but the intricacies of this central body belie the simplicity of its proper day to day caretaking. We only get one – why not give some thought (pun intended) to it.

Prevention of traumatic head injuries is likely the most obvious consideration for avoiding significant damage to the brain. Unfortunately, we cannot always predict when an accident might occur, but we can take basic steps like fastening our seat belts while riding in automobiles and wearing helmets when engaging in physical activities carrying risk of trauma. Beneath the skull, we must be concerned with degenerative disorders of the brain affecting motor skills and cognition, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s. Depression and anxiety also afflict millions of individuals across the country. It is important to remember that although our fast paced, high-stress lives can seem overwhelming, these conditions are chemical, and there are measures we can take to mitigate their negative effects.

Perhaps the most severe threat to the brain is stroke and other cardiovascular disease. The American lifestyle has taken a significant toll on the health of the blood vessels that deliver vital oxygen and nutrients to the brain. We have seen it most exaggerated throughout the southeastern US, a part of the country known as the ‘Stroke Belt,’ where residents face significantly higher rates of stroke morbidity and mortality.

The experts offering advice to citizens on how to minimize their risk of stroke sound like a veritable broken record; sleep more. Eat better. Exercise. Although stroke care has made huge advances in technology and technique over the course of the past decade, there is truthfully no more powerful plan of action than that of prevention. Telemedicine may soon be able to play a bigger role in opening lines communications between physicians and patients at risk of having a stroke, helping them take the necessary steps to avoid an emergency situation where the health of their brain and their life are in danger. As neurologists become more familiar with the advantages of new telemedicine technologies, they are realizing that the “ounce of prevention” is more readily available than ever before.