By Julia M. Boothe, M.D.
If it seems you are having to to wait longer to get a doctor appointment than you used to, it’s not your imagination. Alabama is experiencing a physician shortage, and the results can be far worse than a mere inconvenience for your schedule.
The physician shortage means patients are experiencing delays in access to medical care for a range of prevention, wellness and treatment options. When patients have difficulty accessing care, their health problems worsen. Most eventually end up in already crowded hospital emergency departments. This puts extra strain on overworked hospital staff and ends up increasing health care costs for everyone.
Fortunately, there is legislation before the Alabama Legislature that would help address the physician shortage of today and build the physician workforce we need for tomorrow.
This legislation is the Physician Workforce Act – House Bill 243 sponsored by Rep. Paul Lee and Senate Bill 155 sponsored by Sen. April Weaver. Patients and physicians across the state can be grateful these two leaders are proactively dealing with this looming health care crisis.
The Physician Workforce Act focuses on three key areas: cutting red tape to boost physician recruitment, better utilizing our existing physician workforce, and establishing an apprenticeship-like program for future physicians.
Alabama does a great job recruiting industries to our state with incentives. But when it comes to recruiting doctors, we throw up unnecessary barriers and red tape. Physicians licensed to practice medicine in other states can’t relocate to Alabama and practice medicine unless they take an additional test. And we make this test even more burdensome by requiring that it be taken in-person. So, a fully licensed physician from Georgia, Florida or any other state who is thinking of moving to Alabama must physically show up to take this test.
This requirement is unnecessary, outdated and a barrier to better health care. The Physician Workforce Act repeals this red tape. Doing so won’t lessen standards because all other medical licensure requirements will stay the same. But removing this bureaucratic barrier will make Alabama more competitive when it comes to recruiting physicians.
As Sen. Weaver has said, if we want more doctors in Alabama, we need to make Alabama more welcoming to doctors. With this important change, the Physician Workforce Act does that.
In addition to recruiting physicians, we need to do a better job utilizing the physician workforce we already have. International Medical Graduates (IMGs) currently make up 20 percent of Alabama’s physician workforce. They are required to complete three years of training in a residency program to become eligible for an initial medical license. By contrast, U.S. and Canadian medical graduates must complete only one year of residency to become licensed.
IMGs are subject to the same rigorous credentialing standards as any other U.S. physician and are held to the same demanding educational standards as students attending medical schools in the U.S. and Canada. Alabama’s licensing requirements need to reflect that.
Therefore, the Physician Workforce Act would allow IMGs to apply for an initial medical license after two years of residency. This would enable IMGs to begin working more quickly in Alabama and allow our busy clinics and hospitals to utilize these highly trained medical professionals for hard-to-staff overnight shifts in emergency departments.
If a medical graduate is looking to apply for a residency, they will go to states where they can work as soon as possible. And if these physicians are allowed to work sooner in Alabama, the higher the chances they will stay in Alabama when their residency training is over.
Twenty other states already follow this accelerated route toward a medical license for IMGs. Alabama should join them.
Lastly, the Physician Workforce Act would create an apprenticeship-like program to help bolster the physician workforce of tomorrow. If this were to become law, Alabama would join nearly 10 other states that allow medical graduates who do not match into residency programs to increase their knowledge and skills under the supervision of licensed physicians as they prepare to reapply for residency.
With physicians serving as their mentors, these medical graduates would receive additional training that will benefit them tremendously in the future and help to ease pressure on our health care system today.
Legislators should make passage of the Physician Workforce Act a priority. It would significantly expand the pool of trained physicians practicing in our state, it would increase the number of patients getting the medical care they need and it would improve health outcomes for Alabama’s sick and injured. For these reasons, it has earned the support of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the University of South Alabama, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and numerous medical specialty groups.
The sooner the Physician Workforce Act becomes law, the sooner we’ll put Alabama on the path toward a healthier future.
Dr. Boothe is a primary care physician caring for patients in Reform, Alabama. She serves as Immediate Past President of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.