Dr. Fowler talks about Physician shortage expected to worsen nationally, already a problem locally

Dr. Fowler talks about Physician shortage expected to worsen nationally, already a problem locally

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) – Labor statistics and trends project the United States will be dealing with a major physician shortage in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the U.S. will be short between 37,000 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.

The lack of primary care physicians is already a major problem in the Valley and in other rural communities.

“Rural areas are taking the brunt, they’re taking the hit of everything. It’s only going to get worse, I don’t see it getting any better,” said Dr. Rocky Fowler, a primary care physician at Fowler Family Medicine in Harrisonburg.

Dr. Fowler said that Harrisonburg and the surrounding Valley are very short on primary care physicians especially compared to more urban areas.

“We need physicians bad and we need them yesterday. As far as larger metropolitan areas they have a really good way of attracting physicians and keeping them. We’re a little smaller area, don’t have all the amenities that you could offer like in D.C,” said Fowler.

Fowler Family Medicine in Harrisonburg opened its doors in January of 2022, since then it has had over 3,000 patients and is getting 20 to 30 new patients a week. The demand for physicians in the area far outweighs the supply.

“Here the average monthly wait is around 3 to 4 months just to get in for a new patient. That’s not good if you’re sick or you’re having a problem, especially if it’s your grandma or grandpa or brother or sister. You don’t want to wait that long,” said Fowler.

There are a number of factors causing the shortage like the Baby Boomer Generation moving into retirement and having more health care needs and along with it the retirement of many older physicians.

“To maintain the status quo Virginia will require an additional 1,622 primary care physicians by 2030 which is a 29% increase of the current number of primary care physicians,” said Julian Walker, Vice President of Communications for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. That estimate comes from the Robert Graham Center.

Walker said that healthcare shortages were a problem before the COVID pandemic but the pandemic complicated things even further. VHHA has taken a number of steps to secure state and federal funding to help address the shortage.

It launched the On Board Virginia website which aims to help connect people to healthcare jobs in Virginia as well as educational opportunities and employment incentive programs like the Virginia State Loan Repayment Program.

“This is a federal grant from the Health Resources Services Administration Bureau of Health Professions that is administered by the state department of health. This provides loan repayments to participants in exchange for a commitment of two years of service in a health professional shortage area in Virginia,” said Walker.

While VHHA has launched several programs to strengthen the workforce pipeline, it is also competing with other states with the same problem.

“There is a lot of competition, there are other states that are doing things like what we’re doing here. And so there is a finite pool of folks who are coming through medical school, who are going to nursing school, and there is competition to recruit, attract, and retain those individuals,” said Walker.

Dr. Fowler said that there are other ways that the physician shortage is being addressed like the hiring of more physician assistants and nurse practitioners to help fill in the gaps.

“Another way is to embrace what we call IMGs. IMGs are International Medical Graduates who trained outside the U.S. but came to the U.S. to practice. One in four physicians in the U.S. right now is an IMG so they’re looking at that way to kind of fill in the gaps,” said Fowler. “The main rate-limiting step there is probably residency spots. You can only have some many residency spots to fill with physicians before there are no more spots left. So that’d be an area we’ll probably try to work on in the future.”

Dr. Fowler said that if more physicians don’t come to the area more and more people will wind up going to the ER for care they’d typically get from a physician.

“That’s like using a Bazooka to kill a fly. You don’t really need it, that’s too much horsepower. I’m a primary care physician, I can see someone in my office and we can evaluate and treat them for a reasonable amount of money versus an ER visit which is thousands of dollars,” he said.

You can learn more about healthcare employment in Virginia here.