[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced yesterday that the department would be providing over $240 million in funding to encourage the expansion of the primary care workforce.

In a press release yesterday from the HHS, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Acting Administrator Jim Macrae said, “These awards not only strengthen our primary health care workforce but increase access to primary care in urban, rural and frontier locations nationwide.”

Many people in the US, primarily those living in rural and remote areas, do not have direct access to primary care due to a shortage of providers. Technology such as telemedicine has been implemented as a method of providing care to this underserved population. In early 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted $16 million towards improving telemedicine services to reach rural communities. However, even with an enhanced telemedicine program, the issue is availability. There aren’t enough providers and the demand for primary care physicians continues to persist.

A March 2015 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projected that the increasing demand and lack of supply could lead to a shortage of between 46,100 and 90,400 physicians by 2025. Of that projection, the shortage of primary care physicians will be between 12,500 and 31,100. A previous study done in 2010 estimated the primary care shortage would be about 65,800, and the current numbers are much lower, suggesting that the increasing number of advanced practice nurses is making a difference.

New graduates make decisions driven primarily by financial opportunities, as they enter the real world and begin paying for rent, cars, and, of course, debt. Those interested in primary care often forego it in favor of more profitable specialties due to the large amount of debt they’ve acquired from schooling. The HHS award money will go towards scholarships and loan repayment programs to help ease the burden on aspiring healthcare professionals and enable them to pursue the field of primary care in exchange.

Of course, the improved results still reflect a significant shortage. The AAMC study also concluded that, once the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is fully implemented, the demand for physicians could increase by up to 2% (16,000 – 17,000 physicians). An estimated 17.6 million people are insured under the ACA as of September 2015. While the uninsured rate has fallen, physician demand will now surely increase.

From health, IT standpoint, as the provider network expands to underserved areas, resolving the issue of interoperability becomes even more critical. For example, if an EKG procedure is done, an interoperable system could not only populate that information into a patient’s record but also trigger a billing module for proper documentation. Proper communication and data exchange between electronic health records (EHR) has long been discussed as a major shortcoming of health IT; however, the Meaningful Use Stage 3 rules that were finalized last week address interoperability and the measures the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) plans on taking in order to prevent information blocking tactics. The CMS fact sheet explaining MU3 states, “In Stage 3, more than 60% of the proposed measures require interoperability, up from 33% in Stage 2.” Interoperable systems are imperative for the success of the healthcare industry, and even more so in rural communities.

With the help of the funding from the HHS, the healthcare industry can move forward in improving primary care across the nation and ensuring that millions of Americans will be able to receive the care they need in a timely manner.

Author: Apoorva Anupindi

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