Dr. Polly Turner has a wellestablished practice in Tempe with just the right number of Medicare patients, a seasoned staff and comfortable income.
She started her practice back in 1982 and is now the sole physician after various partnerships. She enjoys her work, but is looking forward to passing her practice on to a younger physician and starting her retirement.
“We have a happy little practice here, but I need a partner ... because I want to teach them everything I know and just start turning over the responsibility,” Turner said. “This would be a great practice for a new doctor coming out (of residency) because it’s all set, ready to go and running smoothly with a huge patient base.”
Her search for a partner and eventual replacement, however, is progressing slowly because of a shortage of physicians in Arizona and the Valley.
For every 100,000 residents in Arizona, there are 207 physicians, about half as many as in Massachusetts, New York and Maryland, according to the American Medical Association. The national average is 283 per 100,000.
The problem of finding replacements for doctors who are retiring is becoming a major worry for health care planners as the physician population ages.
“Approximately 44 percent of Arizona’s practicing physicians are over 50 years old,” said Dr. Mary Rimsza, codirector of the Center for Health Information and Research at Arizona State University. “The aging of the physician population in Arizona will have an important impact on physician supply.”
Many baby boomer physicians will be retiring in the next 10 to 15 years, and most of those with their own practices would like to see those practices continue after they retire, she said.
“They have to compete with every other state and every other practice in terms of recruiting a new physician to their practice,” Rimsza said. “We have an advantage in Arizona that it’s a nice climate, and people enjoy living here. On the other hand, we don’t have a very large pool of graduating residents.”
It’s easier for a retiring physician to find a replacement in states with more medical schools, she said.
“Over 90 percent of the doctors practicing in Arizona now are from out of state,” Rimsza said. “And even with the increases in the medical school classes in both Tucson and Phoenix medical campuses, as well as the opening of an osteopathic medical school, we will still need to largely depend on other states and other countries to provide us with physicians.”
Turner said the shortage has limited the number of viable candidates to take over her practice. Because the process is moving slowly, she won’t be exiting her practice for at least several months.
“I’ve had probably over the last year six serious applicants,” she said. “One had trouble with a green card, and I think several of them decided to become hospitalists because they had a lot of debt.”
Many new physicians are choosing to become hospitalists because it offers a steady income, benefits and more regular hours than in the traditional private-practice setting, Turner said. Hospitalists are physicians stationed primarily in the hospital to handle all admissions from a specific practice or group, and are responsible for coordinating diagnostic treatments and processes during a patient’s hospital stay.
The average physician coming out of training has more than $100,000 in medical school debt, and they need to start making money as soon as possible to repay that debt, said Chic Older, executive vice president of the Arizona Medical Association.
“Cash flow has become a critical problem for everybody in the medical community, whether it is a physician starting a brand-new practice or a physician with a well-established practice or a group,” he said. “Revenues have decreased over the last 10 years, while expenses have increased. So cash flow is crucial.”
Continued population growth across Arizona ensures the physician shortage will continue for the foreseeable future, Rimsza said.
“Even though we have more doctors moving here, it may not be enough for the rest of the population moving here who needs medical care,” she said.
In the meantime, Turner is prepared for a long wait.
“I have two docs right now who are very serious about coming, but neither of them graduate until next spring, and then they’ll take their boards (physician certifications) in August, so it will be next September before they’re really available,” she said.