This National Doctors’ Day, conquer the physician shortage one mentor at a time

March 30th is National Doctors’ Day, a day set aside to recognize physicians, their work, and their contributions to society and the community. Though we are used to thinking of the profession of physician as something many parents hope their children aspire to, the reality is that fewer and fewer students are choosing that path.

According to a March 2017 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. will face a shortage of between 40,800 and 104,900 physicians by 2030. Yet, at the same time, the total US population is expected to grow by 12 percent, and the number of adults aged 65 and older is expected to increase by 55 percent.

Even today, if barriers to health care access were removed and all Americans used health care resources at the same levels as insured patients, according to the report, we would need more than 96,000 additional doctors to cover the needs of country, and at least three-quarters of these in urban areas. Right now, almost 20 percent of Americans live in a community that has an insufficient number of primary care doctors.

But why is this? The cost of medical school has definitely been one determining factor. Nearly three-quarters of medical students graduate with debt, and the median debt for students graduating in 2016 was almost $190,000. Additionally, and I would argue more important, is the alarming statistic that more than half of the country’s physicians describe themselves as professionally burned out. We currently work in a setting where the over-computerization of practice and an increasing burden of bureaucratic tasks take hours away from interacting with patients.

With all of these realities, how do we restore the human-element that initially inspired many of us to seek a profession of caring for others in the first place? By beginning with the sense of purpose and encouragement that we can give to each other as physicians, I believe. The solution, as my own experience attests, is mentorship.

I am where I am today as a physician because of the guidance and support of a physician mentor when I was a medical student. I want to thank Dr. Erin Tracy of Massachusetts General Hospital, who recognized my potential and encouraged my involvement in health policy and organized medicine and truly inspired my interest in women’s health.

In Dr. Tracy, I see a commensurate physician and woman who makes a difference to every person in her life. And she has a busy life—not only as a practicing physician, but as a mother of three, an active contributor in her home community, and as a leader who is active in health policy and organized medicine. I remain impressed by her commitment to improving health care outcomes and access to care for marginalized women.

She taught me how to identify and set priorities, and she showed me that our role as a physician can extend beyond the clinic walls. I discovered that I did not have to choose between making a difference in the lives of individual patients and being their greater advocate within the physician and local community. It is possible to combine personalized care and attention with a role as a champion for improved health outcomes and more efficient health care systems.

She helped me to define what it means to have a fulfilling career and empowered me to achieve those aims. Today, I work closely with my patients, helping them to reach their individual goals, while working in my community and on a state-level to achieve policies that can result in access for all to full reproductive health care and justice in reproductive rights.

I am grateful that organizations like the American Medical Association Foundation are recognizing the difference that mentorship can make in an aspiring physician’s career and have established a program, the Leadership Development Institute, which specifically matches medical students one-on-one with experienced mentors in their fields.

We cannot overlook that the current physician shortage is more than just a care issue — it’s an economic one as well. According to a recent economic impact report by the American Medical Association, physicians add an aggregate of $2.3 trillion to the nation’s economy and support the employment of nearly 12.6 million Americans. No matter how you look at it, we need doctors, and we need doctors who want to be doctors.

This National Doctors’ Day celebrate those, like Dr. Tracy, who are fostering and supporting the physician community and cultivating a new generation of physicians committed to caring for a patient community in need.

Heather Smith is an obstetrician-gynecologist and a member, board of directors, American Medical Association Foundation.

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