One of the key reasons that the US has poor health care outcomes in spite of the soaring cost of health care is that our capacity to produce skilled doctors and nurses is already inadequate. It takes lots of highly skilled people to keep the population healthy. Most jobs in the health-care industry – doctors, nurses, therapists, medical researchers, and many more – require at minimum a college degree (and in many cases an extensive post-baccalaureate education). Any kind of breakdown in the educational system can result in staffing shortages that directly reduce the quality of health care and raise its cost substantially, thus indirectly reducing quality still further.
We’re already running short on doctors, particularly primary care physicians, and the problem will only get worse over time. According to the AAMC, which represents teaching hospitals, VA facilities, health systems, and medical schools, the shortage will be ten times as bad by 2025, when there will be an unmet demand for more than 130,000 physicians. This will occur because of the comparatively small increase in the number of new doctors, based on our seriously inadequate med school capacity, and the large expected increase in demand for health services due to the rapid aging of the population and wider access to insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.
Normally, the market’s demand for labor would produce an increase in the supply of new doctors, but aspiring doctors must deal with soaring costs, limited med school space, and other serious barriers to entry. This has produced our current physician shortage, and the problem will only get worse as long as those barriers are in place. Physicians aren’t the only ones who are going to be scarce. Nurses are needed even more than doctors. While the training to become a nurse is in a number of ways easier and cheaper than that to become a doctor, the sheer number of nurses that will be needed in the coming decade(s) is going to create a demand for trained labor that will be hard for our educational system to satisfy.
Sidebar: Education’s healthy side-effects