Think it’s tough getting in to see a doctor now? It will only get worse as the population ages and needs more medical care.
Remember, too, that doctors are growing older right along with the rest of us; more than a third of the state’s health care professionals are over 55, so prepare for a wave of retirements.
If we don’t step up recruitment and training, California will be short 4,100 primary care doctors in 10 years, according to a newly released study by a statewide commission. That should be wake-up call for the Central Coast, which already is medically underserved.
The Central Coast now has 50 primary care physicians per 100,000 people; the recommended number is between 60 and 80 per 100,000 people though only one region — the Bay Area — is within that range.
When it comes to specialists, there are 93 per 100,000 people on the Central Coast. That’s within the recommended range of 85 to 105, but below the statewide average of 104. And with its large population of retired residents on the Central Coast who need more medical care, those numbers should be on the higher side of the recommendations.
The California Future Health Workforce Commission, co-chaired by UC President Janet Napolitano and Dignity Health President and CEO Lloyd Dean, has a plan to close the state’s medical workforce gap by 2030 — just a little over 10 years away.
It’s an ambitious plan, and with 27 separate recommendations that would cost $6 billion to implement, it’s going to be a heavy lift. But this also is a rare opportunity to retool California’s medical work force to more closely resemble our diverse population.
As the commission points out, Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the state population, yet only 7 percent of doctors are Latino, and fewer than 20 percent of medical professionals speak Spanish.
That matters: Patients are more likely to follow a doctor’s advice when they can fully understand it. They also are more likely to share information with a health care provider they feel comfortable with, and that can be critical to their treatment.
So, how are we to remake the health care work force of the future?
Here are some proposals:
• Expand the educational pipeline to recruit more students into health careers. The commission proposes mentorships, and other support programs with a goal of adding 5,700 low-income and underrepresented minority professionals to the state’s health care workforce during the next 10 years.
• Fund scholarships for qualified students who pursue health care careers and commit to serving in underserved and rural communities.
• Expand the home health care worker “family of jobs” to provide more career paths and training. California will need an estimated 600,000 home care workers by 2030. Investing in their training could save billions by reducing spending on unnecessary emergency department visits and hospitalizations.
• Develop a psychiatric nurse practitioner program.
• Maximize the role of nurse practitioners.
• Sustain and expand medical programs across UC campuses.
Some current efforts provide hope for the future.
California Northstate University plans to open a 250-bed teaching hospital in Elk Grove to help train new doctors. This year, CNU will graduate its first class of 60 new physicians.
In addition, Proposition 56, the tobacco tax increase passed in 2016, has provided tens of millions of dollars to fund doctor residencies and training.
Yet the question remains: Can California move a new generation into health care careers before the situation becomes an emergency?
The commission’s report provides a critical plan for progress; we strongly urge lawmakers, the medical community and educators at all levels to take its prescriptions seriously.