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Will debt forgiveness program remedy doctor shortage?

A health care reform proposal to repay the student loans of doctors who choose primary care could encourage more medical students to enter the field and help resolve the nation's projected shortage of primary care physicians, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Today, the number of primary care doctors accounts for a mere 35 percent of all practicing physicians, and this figure is rapidly declining. If lawmakers are unable to reverse this trend, the shortage of doctors is estimated to reach 40,000 in the next decade.

A report from the Robert Graham Center found that medical school debt and the projected income differentials between careers in primary care versus specialty care are driving factors in students choosing specialty track residency programs rather than selecting primary care. Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the Stanford medical school, discussed the report and the shortage issue in a recent Dean's Newsletter.

On average, medical school graduates owe $137,000, and primary care fields pay half as much as specialties. The health care reform provision would provide up to $50,000 of loan forgiveness for primary care providers who serve at least five years, or three years in a medically underserved area.

Still, some medical experts question the effectiveness of the loan repayment plan and other options currently being discussed in fixing the doctor shortage problem.

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