It is established fact that in Florida, and across the nation, we face a growing shortage of doctors. The most widely accepted forecast puts the U.S. shortfall between 45,000 and 90,000 by 2025, according to an Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) report.
For Florida, that gap is about 7,000 — a sobering deficit in light of a growing and aging population. The need for primary-care physicians is particularly acute. They act as the first resource for most Americans in staying healthy and managing disease. Florida is consistently identified as one of the most underserved states, with a projected need of 4,671 primary-care physicians by 2030. The problem is worse for the economically disadvantaged, especially in minority-dominated, urban neighborhoods and in rural communities.
Medical schools play a critical role in solving these problems. As top-tier international medical schools with close professional and geographic ties to Florida, our two institutions have been heavily involved in addressing the need alongside our fellow institutions in the United States. Between us, we placed about 1,000 new M.D.s into service in the United States this year — a substantial addition to the 18,000 graduates from all U.S. medical colleges last year.
Of these, 68 entered residency-training programs in Florida. Our institutions are also contributing to the increase in primary-care physicians. Ross University School of Medicine, for example, has seen about 60 percent of its graduates not only go into primary-care residencies following graduation, but stay in primary-care practice. On average, only 35 percent of practicing doctors in the United States work in primary care. The American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC) has placed more than 340 alumni in medically underserved areas in Florida.
Solving America’s healthcare quandary requires more than just increasing volume, but also building a workforce as diverse as the communities it serves. First, racial concordance between a physician and a patient results in higher-quality care — the doctor is more likely to understand the challenges and the patient is more likely to comply with the instructions.
Additionally, a recent AAMC study found that minority physicians are more likely to remain in primary care, concluding that enrolling more minority students in medicine will improve the supply of primary-care physicians. American University of the Caribbean has a 51-percent nonwhite enrollment, while the U.S. medical school average is 42 percent. At Ross, the percentage of African-American graduates in 2014 at 14.5 percent was more than double that of U.S. schools at 6.5 percent.
Finally, the cost of higher education of all kinds, including medical school, is a weighty factor for any student. The barrier only grows for those with fewer economic resources. Debt relief must be on the table for policy makers at all levels, using programs such as loan repayment as incentive for practicing in underserved areas. This geographic redistribution is an important component of meeting our country’s healthcare needs, as nearly 20 percent of Americans live in areas with too few primary-care doctors, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.
We are proud of our hundreds of physician alumni practicing in South Florida and across the state. We select students with the most grit, determination and promise and give them the opportunity to become the doctors that America so badly needs: high-quality caregivers who pass the same board exams and meet the same criteria for residency and licensure as U.S. medical students. We are confident that the lessons we’ve learned — not just about increasing the number of doctors, but also ensuring that they are just as diverse as the communities they serve — can be applied more broadly to help fix the looming physician shortage and provide the level of care that benefits all of us.
Heidi Chumley is executive dean and chief academic officer of the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, based in Coral Gables. Joseph Flaherty is dean and chancellor of Ross University School of Medicine, based in Miramar.