SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah has a shortage of doctors that practice family medicine, and that shortage could be compounded next year as millions of newly insured patients around the country gain coverage under the health care law.
Utah ranks last in the country for primary care doctors, with 58.4 active primary care physicians per 100,000 people, according to 2011 American Medical Association data. That's below the national average of 79.4 primary-care doctors per 100,000 people.
Utah health care officials say the state's doctor shortage is not a new problem, but it could get worse as more people seek care.
Health care groups are studying the state's doctor workforce and seeking solutions. Lawmakers this year also increased the number of students admitted annually to the University of Utah Medical School.
"It's hard to make big changes rapidly, and unfortunately we wait until the crisis is here," said Dr. Marc Babitz, who runs the division of family health and preparedness at the Utah Department of Health.
Utah's Department of Health has received a grant from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation for a workgroup to come up with recommendations to improve shortages in the physician workforce. The group is just getting started, Babitz said, but he hopes it could lead to a larger grant to implement the recommendations or possible legislative changes.
The Utah Legislature took one step this year to start to tackle the state's physician shortage by passing legislation to boost the annual class of students admitted to the University of Utah medical school.
The new legislation provides for 40 more students, bringing the annual class to 122 students.
However, more medical students may not necessarily translate into more primary care physicians, Babitz said.
Primary care doctors do not earn as much as specialists, such as cardiologists or urologists, which makes it a less attractive field to new doctors, many of whom are graduating with large student loan debts.
It's particularly hard to attract new primary care doctors to the state's rural areas, said Don Wood, who directs the Utah Department of Health's office of Primary Care & Rural Health.
Doctors with families can be reluctant to leave urban amenities and population centers where it's easier for a spouse to find work. Setting up a practice in a rural area can also mean fewer patients, which makes it harder to earn a living, Wood said.
Those challenges mean it can sometimes take an entire year to replace a departing rural family practice doctor, Wood said.
It's too soon to tell what effect the health care law might have on rural doctor workforces, Wood said, because there are still a lot of unknowns.
Gov. Gary Herbert has not yet decided whether to accept the federal government's offer to expand Medicaid, and it is unclear how many people may choose to participate in health care exchanges and seek coverage.
"More people that have access to insurance plans increase the burden on the system, but we have no idea how many people will take advantage of that when they can," Wood said.
Utah's Department of Health is pursuing several federal grants to help rural medical centers ease workforce burdens by digitizing health records and other initiatives to make staff and care more efficient, Wood said.
Wood said his office is s analyzing recruitment challenges in rural areas and seeking solutions before more doctors in that aging workforce start to retire.
Both Wood and Babitz say the shortage is a long-term problem that won't be solved quickly.