Why the U.S. faces a doctor shortage

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Each July, a new group of medical school graduates begins residency training. Lasting from three to seven years, this hands-on training period is known as graduate medical education (GME), and it is critical to becoming a physician. Medical school graduates cannot practice medicine without completing residency training. Illinois hosts thousands of medical residents who are part of our health network providing patient care.

Residents often train at teaching hospitals, which provide 40 percent of all charity care in the United States. These hospitals also care for 28 percent of all Medicaid patients admitted to the hospital.

Most people don’t realize that most residency training positions are funded through the Medicare program. The federal government spends roughly $11 billion annually to support the education of our medical residents. The public benefit of Medicare’s investment spans the entire health system: Doctors are able to master their specialty, hospitals obtain access to a low-cost professional work force, and patients have access to necessary care provided by doctors-in-training.

Unfortunately, federal support for the residency training system comes with certain limits. In enacting the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Congress capped the number of residency positions at 94,000 and has not since adjusted this ceiling. Since then, the U.S. population has surged by 40 million people, but there has been no growth in the resident training pipeline. Thus, the ratio of doctors serving patients has shrunk significantly, often leading to long waits for medical care or even a lack of access to physicians in some communities across America.

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