Thanks to health care reform, millions of previously uninsured Americans will have policies enabling them to go to the doctor when necessary without financial fear. But it's a bit like giving everyone a plane ticket to fly tomorrow. If the planes are all full, you won't be going anywhere.
There are not a lot of doctors sitting in their offices like the Maytag repairman, playing solitaire and wishing a patient would drop by. Most of them manage to stay plenty busy. Nor is there a tidal wave of young physicians about to roll in to quench this new thirst for medical care.
On the contrary. The Association of American Medical Colleges says that by 2025, the nation could be 150,000 doctors short of the number we need. Meanwhile, the number of med students entering primary care, the area of greatest need, is on the decline.
It's hard to quickly boost the supply of physicians, since the necessary training usually takes at least seven years beyond college. The result, as an AAMC official told The Wall Street Journal: "It will probably take 10 years to even make a dent into the number of doctors that we need out there."
That, of course, is assuming that the new health insurance system doesn't drive aspiring or existing doctors out of medicine, which is entirely possible. Regardless, there seems to be no doubt that it will get harder to find someone to treat you, it may cost more and you'll spend two hours in the waiting room instead of one.
Or maybe not. What people with medical problems need is medical care, but you don't always need a physician to get treatment. You might also see a different sort of trained professional -- say, a nurse practitioner, physician's assistant, nurse or physical therapist.
Not every ailment demands Dr. McDreamy, any more than every car trip requires a Lexus. If you have a sore throat, earache or runny nose, you probably don't absolutely require a board-certified internist to conduct an exam and dispense a remedy.
But it may not be up to you to decide who is suited to provide the care you want. Different states have different rules on what these clinicians may do. In many places, a nurse practitioner has to be under the supervision of a doctor. In others, she may not prescribe medicines or use the title "Dr." even if she has a doctorate (as many do).
Medicare typically reimburses nurse practitioners at a lower rate than physicians. In Chicago, an office visit that would bring $70 to a doctor is worth only $60 to a nurse practitioner.