UH School of Medicine could limit primary care physician shortage in the area

August 8, 2018 GMT

Health care officials hope the opening of the University of Houston’s School of Medicine in 2020 can help limit a shortage of primary care physicians plaguing several regions of the country — including the Greater Houston area.

In 2017 the Texas Department of State Health Services estimated that there are 4,122 primary care physicians in Harris County to take care of a population that exceeds 4.6 million. That means there are only 89 primary care physicians to treat every 100,000 Harris County residents.

According to the Health Resources & Services Administration by the year 2020 there will be a projected shortage of 20,400 primary care physicians across the country.

Money contributes to more doctors choosing a different specialty, said Lone Star College-Kingwood Biological Sciences Chair Mike Clark.

“Most people when they graduate medical school … they want to go into a speciality — like I went into gynecology,” Clark said. “There’s many reasons. One is money. You make more money in specialties than in family practice (also known as primary care physician).”

The time committment is also arduous, he said.

Clark said primary care physicians study for four years in medical school and most family practice programs are three years. This comes after completing their four-year undergraduate degree.

“If somebody starts (medical school) in 2020 then it would be about 2027 if they do family practice before they go out and practice it,” Clark said.

However the shortage has real consequences on health care, LSC-Kingwood Interim Director of Nursing Nickie Loftin said. Often there are long waiting lists to visit a primary care physician, she said.

“(There’s) a severe shortage, and that’s going to cause problems,” Loftin said. “Even now (there are issues) with people getting in to see their physicians because there’s too many people wanting appointments. Say I have something I need (taken care of) right now. I can’t go see him today; I would have a couple of weeks wait to see my physician.”

Loftin said a growing number of elderly patients is outpacing the number of new nurses and primary physicians.

“The shortage is based upon the number of elderly patients that are living now versus the number of new nurses entering the field,” Loftin said. “We didn’t have these life extending measures that we do now. With the greater number of the elderly population the more nurses and hospitals you’re going to need to take care of them.”

According to a 2016 Texas Department of State Health Services study there will be a shortage of all nurse types by 2030.

Loftin also added the pay difference between a physician or a nurse working at a hospital versus working in a educational institution is quite significant. So it is hard to find qualified professors to teach up-and-coming nurses and doctors as well, she said.

“Those people who work in hospitals don’t want to leave and work for colleges because they would have to take a pay cut,” Loftin said.

UH’s plan is for the school’s focus to be the preparation of primary-care doctors who practice in underserved urban and rural communities, a huge need given Texas ranks 47th out of 50 states in primary care physician-to-population ratio. The college will aim for at least 50 percent of each graduating class to specialize in primary care.

University of Houston’s Director of Media Relations Chris Stipes said preference to students who apply to be in the first class will be given to those who are from Texas with a strong interest practicing primary care.

“There’s a significant shortage and we want to fill that gap where there’s the most need. The mission of the medical school is to improve health and health care in communities that have major health disparities and to really make a difference in the health of communities,” Stipes said. “Even though Houston is home to the Texas Medical Center, large swaths of the city are measured as having high or moderately high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage. The majority of these areas also possess the highest levels of residents in fair or poor health.”