Employers Should Act Now to Deal With Looming Doctor Shortage

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Today's healthcare landscape is changing rapidly, and it should come as no surprise that these changes are steadily impacting every single facet of the industry. From diagnostic tests to pharmaceutical costs to post-acute services, prices are steadily rising, and skilled workers are hard to come by.

Unfortunately, that worker shortage now includes primary care providers. In fact, there could be a shortage of up to 100,000 physicians by 2025, according to the American Colleges of Medicine. There are several factors contributing to this staggering shortage, including an increasingly competitive medical school application processes, regulations that cap the number of residency positions at hospitals, and an entire generation of providers aging out of practice faster than new physicians can enter.

With fewer physicians providing primary services, even patients who have access to comprehensive healthcare benefits from their employers may find it harder to get the care they need. As a result, many of them will either not seek out primary care services or will have to pay top dollar for hard-to-find healthcare. Both of those scenarios will result in higher out-of-pocket costs for both employers and employees.

We cannot simply create a larger supply of physicians, but we can - and I argue businesses, employers, and healthcare providers must – embrace new tools that balance supply and demand, including:

  • Technology that optimizes the care experience for physicians and patients;
  • Physician-led team care models that create more patient-provider time;
  • Using data analytics to address their population’s health; and
  • Choosing technology-enabled health and wellness benefit providers.

We must also work together to remove barriers to primary care. Investing in an onsite or near-site clinic initiative is one way to do make it easier for employees to receive care while combating chronic conditions and lowering employer healthcare costs in the long-term. By providing unimpaired access to a primary care physician through an onsite or near-site clinic, employers can proactively:

  1. Impact Preventative Care: There are countless reasons why people don’t visit the doctor regularly, including uncomfortable situations, inconvenient locations, price, and just plain old forgetfulness. Those who don’t visit a primary care physician regularly are at risk of living unhealthy lifestyles or developing long-term chronic health issues. With an onsite or near-site clinic option, it’s simple and easy for employees to meet with physicians in a comfortable, cost-effective environment. Employers can directly impact employee health, which in turn positively impacts long-term preventative issues.  
  2. Reduce the Risk of Inappropriate Care: One of the most costly expenses for an employer health plan is emergency care. Visits to the emergency department, urgent care center, or even immediate care clinics can run up healthcare costs without addressing end-of-the-line results. Unfortunately for employers, more than 70% of emergency department visits are unnecessary. These inappropriate care visits are literally burning dollars that could be better spent on employee-first preventative care. With onsite and near-site clinics, employees can easily visit a knowledgeable provider to address any questionable critical situation. This applies to worksite injuries or illnesses, too. While an onsite or near-site clinic might not replace an emergency department for the tough issues, it can be a great first stop to validate an injury before heading to a high-cost care center.
  3. Leverage Technology: With physicians in short supply, employers and other healthcare benefit providers must more effectively manage the supply that exists. Fortunately, consumer-focused healthcare technologies are helping to bridge the gap to optimize both the physician and the patient’s time. One example is the recent rise in popularity in virtual care options, including telephonic or web-based visits for conditions that may not require an in-person consultation. Rather than a patient spending 15 to 30 minutes to a doctor’s office, then waiting another 30 minutes in the waiting area plus an additional 10 minutes in exam room – all  for a 5-minute consultation, a visit can now take place online in 10 minutes total or less.
  4. Manage Chronic Conditions: Today, 1 in 2 American adults has a chronic health condition, ranging from heart disease to high cholesterol to diabetes. As the patient population (and, in conjunction, the employee population) ages, the number of employees with these conditions is growing. Providing self-funded healthcare for employees with chronic conditions is a costly expense, and a growing lack of providers will only make it harder for these individuals to receive care. Onsite and near-site clinics both improves employee access to care and strengthens employer messaging around wellness initiatives. Employers are now taking an upfront position to help employees fight chronic conditions by providing them with exercise information, nutrition coaching, psychological evaluations, and more through onsite clinic programs.

Employers that offer onsite or near-site healthcare are already being heralded as companies that care deeply about their employees. As the physician shortage grows and consumers find it harder and harder to conveniently secure primary care treatment, this solution is going to be in greater and greater demand.

I encourage businesses to explore their options for this kind of remedy now.

Jeff Wells, MD, MBA, is the co-founder of Indianapolis-based OurHealth

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