The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of healthcare systems worldwide, highlighting the urgent need to address many critical issues, including a severe shortage of medical professionals.
Experts predict that a perfect storm of factors will contribute to that dearth of medical personnel in the near future, posing potential consequence for New Jersey’s healthcare landscape.
As the global average life expectancy rises, the demand for healthcare services and chronic disease management increases exponentially. Elderly individuals often require specialized care, leading to an increased need for geriatricians, nurses and support staff. That strain on the healthcare system is predicted to exacerbate the shortage of medical professionals—who are themselves an aging population.
“Ensuring that New Jersey has a pipeline of future physicians is critical: Approximately 38% of the state’s physicians are aged 60 or older—the fourth highest in the nation, and well above the national average of 32%,” says Cathy Bennett, The New Jersey Hospital Association’s president and CEO, who adds that both educating and retaining the next generation of medical providers is a key element in safeguarding against the void those inevitable retirements may cause. “In 2021, only about 47% of N.J. students bound for medical school enrolled in New Jersey medical schools. By expanding medical school opportunities within New Jersey, we hope to increase the number of new physicians who choose to practice here.”
The demand for healthcare services continues to surge, fueled by rises in both population and chronic diseases. Conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mental health disorders require ongoing care, placing a heavier burden on healthcare providers. Additionally, advancements in medical technology and treatments are prolonging life expectancy, further increasing the demand for medical professionals. Unfortunately, the supply of healthcare workers has not kept pace with this rising demand, creating an unsustainable situation.
According to Joshua Bengal, government relations director and staff counsel at the Medical Society of New Jersey, the daily workforce challenges primary care physicians face is a major contributor in why they often retire early.
"Various workforce challenges compound the predicted medical shortage. Physicians often are challenged by insurance companies denying claims or prolonging approvals for further treatment options," he says. "Perhaps a patient comes in with recurring pain in the knee, and an X-ray fails to provide any information, the next step might be to prescribe an MRI. Often this approval from the insurance company is denied, or delayed while in review, and patients abandon their treatment altogether."
Bengal also explains that the state has introduced a bill that would help to elevate the frustrations tied to these types of issues, the Ensuring Transparency in Prior Authorization Act. "This bill has passed through one committee in the Assembly (it still has to move through the Assembly Financial Institutions Committee in the fall) and through one (and we expect only) committee in the Senate. It would make common sense changes to the prior authorization system like quicker decisions, and ensure more medical discussion between prescribing physicians and insurance company physicians when necessary, in hopes of creating less stress on physicians when trying to treat their patients.”
As Bennett indicated, another cause for the decline in providers is that medical students educated locally often relocate to different parts of the country, since New Jersey has one of the nation’s highest costs of living. That, along with, student loan debt and malpractice insurance, discourages physicians, especially recent graduates, from practicing in the state.
"We have to try and incentivize those that were educated in this area, to stay here and practice medicine," Bengal notes.
There’s also a push to ensure that New Jersey’s medical field is as richly diverse as its population.
“It is important that physicians and other healthcare professionals reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of their communities,” says Bennett. “While New Jersey boasts great diversity in its physician workforce, there’s still a gap in the number of Black and Hispanic physicians. We will continue to focus on decreasing that gap, as it can only yield better health outcomes and increased economic opportunities.”
The shortage of primary care physicians in New Jersey has numerous implications, one being increased healthcare costs. The absence of primary care physicians leads to increased reliance on costly emergency room visits and specialist care, driving up healthcare expenses for individuals and the healthcare system as a whole. It also means limited access to care: Longer wait times for appointments and limited availability of primary care services make receiving timely care difficult, resulting in delayed diagnoses.
But by expanding residency programs, offering financial incentives, leveraging technology, and promoting collaboration, New Jersey can move closer to mitigating the shortage and improving its residents’ primary care access for its population—a concerted effort the industry is already working toward.
"The problems have been acknowledged, so it's important to create solutions," confirms Bengal. "Collaborative efforts involving healthcare organizations, policymakers and medical associations can influence policy changes that will hopefully address the primary care physician shortage for the future."
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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 7 (July 2023).
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