The United States has nearly 400,000 primary care providers (Bodenheimer and Pham, 2010). As noted in Chapter 3, physicians account for 287,000 of these providers, nurse practitioners for 83,000, and physician assistants for 23,000 (HRSA, 2008; Steinwald, 2008). While the numbers of nurse practitioners and physician assistants are steadily increasing, the number of medical students and residents entering primary care has declined in recent years (Naylor and Kurtzman, 2010). In fact, a 2008 survey of medical students found only 2 percent planned careers in general internal medicine, a common entry point into primary care (Hauer et al., 2008).
There is a great deal of geographic variation in where primary care providers work. About 65 million Americans live in areas that are officially identified as primary care shortage areas according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) (Rieselbach et al., 2010). For example, while one in five U.S. residents live in rural areas, only one in ten physicians practice in those areas (Bodenheimer and Pham, 2010). A 2006 survey of all 846 federally funded community health centers (CHCs) by Rosenblatt and colleagues (2006) found that 46 percent of direct care providers in rural CHCs were nonphysician clinicians, including nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and physician assistants; in urban clinics, the figure was 38.9 percent. The contingent of physicians was heavily dependent on international medical graduates and loan forgiveness programs. Even so, the vacancies for physicians totaled 428 full-time equivalents (FTEs), while those for nurses totaled 376 FTEs (Rosenblatt et al., 2006). Expansion of programs that encourage health care providers to practice primary care, especially those from underrepresented and culturally diverse backgrounds, will be needed to keep pace with the demand for community-based care. For further discussion of variation in the geographic distribution of primary care providers, see the section on expanding access to primary care in Chapter 3.
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office determined that there were few projections of the future need for primary care providers, and those that existed were substantially limited (Steinwald, 2008). Arguably, it is simpler to project the future supply of health professionals than to project future demand for their services. It is difficult to predict, for example, the pattern of increased demand for primary care after full implementation of the ACA adds 32 million newly insured people to the health care system. Will there be a short, marked spike in demand, or will the surge be of longer duration that leaves more time to adapt? Given that there are more than 6,000 health professions primary care shortage areas nationwide (HRSA, 2010), the question remains of whether grow-