Editor’s note: This article is part of an AAMC effort to educate policymakers and the public about the value of academic medicine and the role that the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals play in improving health. It also has been published as sponsored content on www.politico.com.
America faces a shortage of up to 122,000 physicians by 2032, in both primary care as well as in the specialty care an aging population needs. What’s more, with one-third of our nation’s doctors over the age of 65 and nearing retirement in the next decade, access to a doctor’s care will become more difficult, particularly in rural areas and other parts of the country that are already experiencing shortages of physicians.
At least 84 million Americans currently live in locations that have been federally designated as physician shortage areas — a situation that is likely to worsen unless our nation takes steps to significantly increase the number of doctors trained each year.
The physician shortage is also likely to have compounding effects as an aging, more diverse population requires new, innovative treatments for everything from substance use disorders to complex illnesses and diseases to emerging threats, like antibiotic-resistant infections.
These challenges present significant risks to our country. But there is one important facet of the U.S. health care system that focuses on the future and prepares America to meet these challenges, in addition to providing the care that patients need every day: the nation's 154 accredited medical schools and more than 400 major teaching hospitals and health systems.
Collectively known as “academic medicine,” these institutions work together to educate and train the next generation of physicians, biomedical scientists, and other health professionals. As major centers of research, they discover and pioneer new and more effective medical treatments that set the standard of care throughout medicine. And with leading medical experts, the most advanced technologies, and the latest treatments, these centers of medical excellence also work to develop more effective models of health care delivery that improve the quality of patient care and lower costs.
To help address the looming doctor shortage, for example, the nation’s medical schools have increased class sizes, and 26 new medical schools have opened in the past decade. Altogether, these institutions have expanded enrollment by 30% to help ease the effects of the doctor shortage. Along with educating more doctors, medical schools and teaching hospitals are training doctors in new ways and enhancing and refining curricula to ensure tomorrow’s health care professionals are getting the training they need to improve the overall health of our population. Examples include educating future doctors to address social determinants of health, responding to health care crises like the opioid epidemic, and providing care for ongoing health care needs such as obesity, smoking, diabetes, and heart disease.
A recent study published in JAMA found that patients treated at a major teaching hospital have up to 20% higher odds of survival, compared to those treated at nonteaching hospitals.
By training in teaching hospitals, new doctors, nurses, and other health professionals also learn in an environment that integrates education, patient care, and medical research, providing benefits not only to the health care workers but also to the patients in their care. In fact, a recent study published in JAMA found that patients treated at major teaching hospitals have up to 20% higher odds of survival, compared to those treated at nonteaching hospitals. But training the doctors of the future is only one piece of what’s required to care for our aging population and prepare the nation to face emerging health care needs.
Medical innovations are essential to tackling future health needs
Combating diseases and epidemics can only be sustained with continued medical advancements. The nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals conduct 55% of the extramural medical research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This research has saved lives and improved the quality of life for millions, as well as produced many medical firsts and breakthroughs, including better treatments for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes; new techniques such as organ, bone, and stem cell transplants and minimally invasive surgery; novel discoveries and cancer treatments that have saved more than 2.4 million lives since 1991; and all 210 drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2010-16.