Utah needs more doctors, and the need is increasing in step with population growth. And many more Utahns per capita than the national average want to become doctors.
Seems as if the two statistics would cancel each other out. After all, the University of Utah, the state's flagship public university, has a well-respected medical school and hospital. But the U. cannot meet the state's needs because the Utah Legislature has cut funding, making it necessary to reduce the number of medical-school graduates from 102 to 82 each year.
So the 500 or so pre-med students graduating from Utah colleges and universities and interested in practicing medicine must look for alternatives. The Iron County Office of Economic Development, which has an interest in a growing doctor shortage in Utah's rural areas, reports that about 400 students leave Utah each year to attend medical school elsewhere. And few of them return to practice in Utah.
Some private, for-profit universities are considering filling the gap created by the U. medical school's inadequate funding. Iron County officials are working with Rocky Vista University, which wants to open a school of osteopathic medicine in Utah. Other private schools have similar plans to offer osteopathic degrees or are looking at developing curriculum in traditional medicine.
Private schools may be a viable alternative for Utah students, but tuition at most of them is substantially higher than at the public university, and the discrepancy is even greater for medical students.
Osteopathic doctors earn less than medical doctors, and while the U. medical school students practice as residents at the University Medical Center, there are few residencies available for private-school graduates.
When the Affordable Care Act is implemented Jan. 1, 2014, and Utah's uninsured residents are able to get health care, the need for more doctors, especially primary-care specialists, will rise sharply.
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners will be able to fill some of the gaps in access, but the need for more medical doctors in Utah will only become more critical in coming years.
Conservative Republican Utah legislators have been hoping they wouldn't have to deal with the requirements and effects of the federal health-care reform act, the ACA. But there is no longer any doubt: It will be implemented.
The Legislature should make full funding to the U. medical school a top priority when it convenes in January.