RALEIGH — North Carolina faces a looming doctor shortage, particularly in primary care. But a report this week from the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians suggests some relief is on the way.
On Tuesday, March 27, the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians announced a record number of North Carolina medical students entering the specialty of family medicine this year. That is expected to result in greater access to health care in all corners of the state.
Of the 600 North Carolina medical school graduates recently matched with their residency programs, 92 — or 15.4 percent — chose family medicine as their specialty of choice.
“North Carolina is truly outpacing the country by any measure,” said Dr. Tamieka Howell, president of the Academy. “We’ve made some right steps and our state’s medical schools are headed in the right direction.”
A 2015 report from a Washington, D.C.-based national research organization painted a dire forecast for family medicine in North Carolina.
The state would need to add 1,885 primary care physicians to the existing 5,917 by 2030. The 31 percent increase in doctors would merely keep pace with an aging, growing population, according to the report by the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.
Primary care physicians fall into two categories: Family medicine, caring for children and adults, and internal medicine, caring strictly for adults.
The state’s medical schools, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Rural Health, and legislative committees have been seeking solutions. Some existing programs are being revamped. Others are planned.
In North Carolina 15.4 percent of medical students entered family medicine this year, compared to just 9.3 percent nationally.
The state numbers were boosted with the addition this year of the Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine at Campbell University to the existing medical schools.
The rising numbers were aided by a partnership between the academy and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, investing about $2 million in programs designed to increase medical student interest in family medicine.
The partnership effort included providing scholarships, early medical school experiences in rural family medicine, policy and leadership rotations, mentoring experiences, and travel stipends to attend state and national family medicine conferences.
Last year, about 150 medical students received funding to attend the academy’s annual conference. It included continuing education, discussion panels, and opportunities to build relationships with practicing family physicians. Support for those efforts came from a $1.18 million grant through Blue Cross’ philanthropic foundation, along with contributions from the academy and its members.
The academy cited studies showing areas with higher concentrations of primary care physicians have lower death rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
“We have to do all we can to encourage today’s medical school students to explore and consider primary care,” Howell said. “In all areas of our state, access to primary care is repeatedly proven to lower medical costs while improving patients’ health, and their communities.”
Adults who have a primary care physician have 33 percent lower health care costs than those lacking primary care, the academy says.
The UNC School of Medicine matched 32 students into family medicine this year, the most ever. That represents just under 19 percent of the med school’s graduates. Campbell’s Wallace School sent 35 students into family medicine, nearly 26 percent of its graduates. At the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, 15 students, or 21.3 percent of medical students, chose family medicine.
“The work going on throughout the state is starting to show progress,” said Academy Executive Vice President and CEO Greg Griggs. “From the extra focus our state’s medical schools have placed on primary care, to the work of our state Office of Rural Health, to our own family medicine programs and scholars’ initiative, it’s working.”
Even so, he cautioned, the state needs more medical students to commit to family medicine every year.
Dan Way is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.