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October 2, 2012

Study: Mass. doctor shortage a problem at community hospitals

BOSTON — While the number of uninsured Massachusetts residents has fallen since 2006 and the number who have visited a doctor has increased, the state’s shortage of physicians continues, with “critical” levels in a few specialties.

This year, neurosurgery joined internal medicine, urology and psychiatry as fields where there is a critical shortage, according to the Massachusetts Medical Society Physician Workforce Study released yesterday. Other fields in the slightly less drastic “severe” rating include family medicine, dermatology and general surgery.

According to the study, the most “in-demand” fields of medicine are the ones where patients have the most difficulty finding a doctor, and the shortages will be exacerbated by the Affordable Care Act as they were by the 2006 state-level reform.

“In Massachusetts, the percentage of insured residents has increased to 97 percent over the past five years; however 32.8 percent of insured patients indicated a problem obtaining health care in the past year,” the study says. “On a national scale, a similar problem will likely surface, given the number of physicians.”

In the period immediately following the 2006 law, patients around Boston and in the western part of the state were unable to see doctors because they were not accepting new patients, a development that may have added to more emergency room visits.

“[T]he challenges faced by Massachusetts residents in obtaining medical care are reminders that universal insurance coverage does not always guarantee access to health care,” the study said.

The shortage has been somewhat alleviated since 2006, when the number of specialties with critical or severe shortages shot up from six in 2005 to 11 in 2006. That figure peaked in 2008 at 12. This year’s total of seven specialties listed as critical or severe is down from last year’s total of eight.

Orthopedics was listed as in a severe shortage last year but not this year. Internal medicine has been at a critical shortage for the past three years.

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