THIS IS the Health Care Crisis Washington is Missing

From The Tennessean, February 10, 2017
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BY JAMES E. K. HILDRETH, M.D., PH.D.

The future is upon us.

We have a new president, a new Congress and a new cabinet. On many issues, particularly the Affordable Care Act, our country is quickly pursuing a new direction. But in doing so, we cannot leave the realities of the past behind.

The reality for millions of Americans today is that they do not have adequate access to good health care. This is especially true here in our home state of Tennessee, which currently ranks among the bottom worst five states for a number of health measures, including cancer and obesity. Data show that a key reason for these realities is the critical nationwide shortage of primary-care providers – the doctor who sees you for your everyday ailments.

Primary-care providers play a vital role in our health care system because they can diagnose, treat and prevent a variety of acute and chronic conditions while providing care all in one place. Because they see patients more regularly than a specialist might, these doctors have a better understanding of their medical histories and can spot a problem faster.

Patients who have primary-care doctors also save the health care system money over time as they are more likely to get recommended preventative screenings and tests and less likely to run to an urgent care center or emergency room.

Today, it is hard to believe, but many counties in Tennessee have just one primary-care doctor for every 13,000 residents. This shortage is duplicated in counties across the nation. In fact, in fewer than 10 years, experts predict that the U.S. will see a shortfall of up to 35,600 primary-care physicians. If we do not begin reversing the trend now, we will face a health-care catastrophe in the near future.

This is a crisis that our country – regardless of the administration in Washington – must attack immediately by putting greater focus and funding into educating and training primary-care doctors. This is a crisis that occupies our team at Meharry Medical College every day as we shape the next generation of doctors, while advocating in Washington for greater attention to the shortage.

It is a crisis that we will continue to raise with our new national leaders to ensure that, while they pursue their new agenda, they do not forget that primary-care doctors are absolutely essential to keeping our citizens healthy and our health-care system stable.

For more than 140 years, Meharry has been on the frontlines of fighting for the stability and equality of our nation’s health care system. Four out of five of our alumni are now proudly serving people living in underserved and rural communities, and half of the Tennessee students we train will set-up practices here in our home state.

We step into the future with uncertainty, yet with hope and determination. By staying laser focused on our mission – and staying in constant contact with elected and appointed officials on the state and federal level – we will help ensure that the shortage of primary care doctors remains in the forefront of the national conversation. We will never abandon the people who rely on Meharry to produce the doctors they need to survive and thrive – no matter where they live in our country.

James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D. is the 12th president and CEO of Meharry Medical College.