Guest opinion: Overcoming the physicians shortage in Southwest Florida

Nichole Arevalo, an R.N. at the downtown campus of NCH in Naples treats a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit on Monday, August 9, 2021.
Nichole Arevalo, an R.N. at the downtown campus of NCH in Naples treats a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit on Monday, August 9, 2021.
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If you live in Southwest Florida, you are likely already aware that we have a physician shortage. As a family physician in Fort Myers, my phone rings every day with new residents seeking a primary care doctor, but like many other offices in the area, my practice is completely full. In addition, it’s not always easy for me to find the specialists that my patients need.

In 2019, Florida was short nearly 4,000 physicians. By 2035, the physician shortage is expected to reach 18,000 due to a multitude of factors: population growth, an increased demand for medical attention from an aging population and physicians reaching retirement age.

We must take strategic steps such as opening the pipeline for additional residency positions, embracing technology and improving workflows to address this shortage before it reaches dangerous levels.

Increase the number of residency positions in the state

While there has been an increase in medical school enrollments nationwide to help fill the future physician pipeline, residency position growth has not risen enough to ensure those future physicians can get the clinical training they need.

Fortunately, steps are being taken to increase the supply of physicians in our area through the creation of new training programs in Fort Myers and Naples. After completing four years of college and four years of medical school, physicians must then complete an additional period of training called ‘residency,' starting at three years for primary care physicians and extending up to seven years for subspecialists. Since studies show that doctors tend to stay within about 100 miles of where they completed residency, we can expect growth in our physician community as these new doctors enter the field.

Dr. Rebekah Bernard
Dr. Rebekah Bernard

Although we have taken a step in the right direction by creating new residencies in our area, we need more residency positions to ensure we continue to have an adequate physician workforce. Creating more primary care residency opportunities and encouraging future physicians to choose these fields is especially important to ensure the health of our community.

Embrace tele-health

When it’s appropriate, physicians and patients should embrace tele-health, especially for those living in rural areas or with limited mobility. Tele-health can be an excellent adjunct to optimize your health, but it is best provided by your regular physician, who knows your history and can ensure that you get the proper follow-up. Studies also show that having the same physician over time helps you to live longer and healthier.

Tele-health can provide quicker access to medical care for routine diagnoses. And for the physician, it lessens the administrative burden and allows non-physician team members like Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants to handle these more routine, less complex cases, when overseen by a physician.

Address the workflow problem

One of the ways we can look at the physician shortage is as a workflow problem rather than a workforce one. Physicians are overburdened by administrative requirements that detract from their ability to focus on the physician-patient relationship. Implementing an efficient healthcare model, through the use of team-based care, can alleviate some of these burdens and allow physicians more time to spend with patients.

Under this model, each team member works according to his or her unique qualifications, but does not exceed them, ensuring quality, efficient care delivery while lessening the strain on medical professionals – and physicians in particular.

Physician training is the gold standard when it comes to your health. Under nationally standardized medical education, you can be sure that any physician treating you has completed the same rigorous training and passed the same series of multiple examinations.

Despite the growth of non-physician practitioners delivering medical care independently, no studies have confirmed the safety and efficacy of this care when physicians are not involved. A physician-led care team ensures the best quality care.

By examining three angles that address opening the pipeline for future physician clinical training, technology and workflow improvements, we can take steps to address the physician shortage.

Rebekah Bernard, M.D. has worked as a Family Physician for over 20 years. Dr. Bernard graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Sociology and received her medical degree from the University of Miami. She completed her residency at Florida Hospital in Orlando. Dr. Bernard has served as an adjunct professor for the Florida State University College of Medicine and Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Bernard is also a published author of “Patients at Risk: The Rise of the Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant in Healthcare.”

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Physician shortage influenced by population, demand, aging population