Affordable Care Act could lead to doctor shortage

Dr. Jocelyn Rapelyea, associate director of breast imagining at George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates works with the Automated Breast Ultrasound System. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)

WASHINGTON – How long does it take you to get an appointment with your doctor? If the Affordable Care Act goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014, as planned, bringing an estimated 20 million people into the health care system, it could take longer.

The shortage of general practitioners, or family doctors, has been getting worse over the last few years. Several recent studies indicate the country could be 55,000 doctors short by 2020.

Half of the current general practice doctors are older than 50 and nearing retirement as demand increases from the aging baby-boom population.

Physician assistants, or PAs, have been helping fill the gap, handling many routine checkups at practices across the county.

But Howard Straker, president of the D.C. Academy of Physician Assistants, says the influx of new patients into the system under the health care act could lead to longer waits for appointments.

“At the moment it’s pretty tight. Most of the physicians are in specialty care of some sort, so that has made primary care a real need across the area,” says Straker.

He says some people do not want to see a PA and wait longer to see a doctor.

“The practice should explain to people that they can still get the same quality of care if they see the physician’s assistant,” Straker says.

PAs do not practice on their own. They must be teamed with a doctor. Many rural areas and inner cities are already struggling to find any general practice doctors.

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