With Utah's high birthrate, the aging of its huge baby boomer population and the retirement of established physicians, experts say the state needs at least 200 new doctors a year in the foreseeable future just to keep up with patient needs.
The University of Utah and Intermountain Health Care Thursday announced they would join forces to provide more than $3 million a year for at least the next five years to fund 64 new physician residency slots annually. That would bring the number of residents in specialized training in the state to more than 700, an increase of about 10 percent.
It's important, said Dr. David J. Bjorkman, dean of the U. School of Medicine and chairman of the Utah Medical Education Council, which will administer the money, because where a physician trains is the primary predictor of where he or she will practice medicine when training is completed. About 60 percent of doctors practicing in Utah either completed or received part of their medical education and training here.
Right now, 663 physician residents work in 54 different specialties at Utah hospitals. Each residency lasts three to seven years and not all of the funding for the advanced training is provided by the state and federal government. The new funding will help pay the salary and benefits of the trainees.
The national physician pinch — predictions say Americans will be short 200,000 physicians in 15 years — squeezes Utah particularly hard because it already has fewer doctors per capita while the state population keeps growing. The United States has 286 doctors per 100,000 population. Utah has 167.
Even the expanded residency slots will not be enough, Bjorkman said. "We need to expand training dramatically in the future," he said.
It would be easier to attract new physicians to Utah and to retain them if there were fewer barriers, said Dr. Greg Schwitzer, vice president of clinical support services for IHC. He cited as one such barrier the fact that insurance plans only accept a limited number of doctors.
Utah also offers many pluses to physicians, he said, including access to continuing medical education and excellent research opportunities.
The shortage was, to a degree, man-made by a miscalculation, Bjorkman said. About a decade ago, manpower studies predicted a physician surplus by 2010, especially in certain specialties. "Those predictions were very, very wrong."
But at the time, medical schools started limiting enrollment. In the past decade, only one new medical school has opened. And funding for graduate medical education was capped. Medicare funding that has been the mainstay of paying for resident training was cut back. And young would-be physicians also saw increased opportunities to make better money somewhere else. "I think that all played in," he said.
Schwitzer said that lifestyle factors and the pressure of a career in medicine have also played a part in sending bright young people in other career directions.
While the money will pay for more residents, it will not help with infrastructure, such as the cost to provide the training. "We struggle all the time to meet those costs," said Bjorkman.
The new resident positions will be split among various hospitals, including University Hospital, the U. Neuropsychiatric Institute, LDS Hospital and Primary Children's Medical Center. The money will fund training in pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, anesthesiology and both child and adult psychiatry.
IHC and the U. will contribute each year based on how many of the new residents work at their facilities.