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Is there a doctor in the house? Study says not likely

January 02, 2007

Despite recent gains in the number of physicians practicing in Arizona , the state is likely to face a persistent physician shortage for years to come – particularly in rural areas.

A report completed recently by ASU's Center for Health & Information Research (CHIR) found the physician-to-population ratio improving, but it also shows that an additional 2,200 physicians are needed to meet the state's growing demand for health care.

The study is one in a series by CHIR on health and health care services in Arizona . The center is a research arm of ASU's School of Computing and Informatics in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

The “Arizona Physician Workforce Study” was funded by the Flinn Foundation, St. Luke's Health Initiatives and Legacy Foundation in cooperation with the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

The “Arizona Physicians Workforce Study Part 2” examines information on the supply of physicians through 2005 and forecasts demand for the next 15 years. It concludes that Arizona must continue to rely on physicians trained in other states for the overwhelming majority of its physician work force.

Just 5 percent of physicians newly licensed in Arizona in 2005 completed medical school in the state, while 14 percent completed their residency in Arizona .

The shortage is likely to continue in part because more than 1 in 10 Arizona physicians will be age 65 or older by 2010, and most can be expected to retire, the study shows.

“Arizona needs to become a more attractive place for physicians to practice because of our rapidly growing population, limited medical school enrollment and aging physician population,” says Mary Rimsza, medical director for CHIR.

The number of practicing physicians increased by 10 percent from 2004 to 2005 – to 13,125 from 12,024. The largest numbers of increases by medical specialty were in the areas of anesthesiology, family practice, radiology and internal medicine.

There were 207 physicians for every 100,000 Arizona residents in 2004, and 219 physicians for every 100,000 residents in 2005. But that physician-to-population ratio improvement of 6 percent still leaves Arizona ranking far lower than the national average of physicians per capita.

The report shows a more acute physician shortage in rural areas, and it also notes that Arizona residency training programs are more likely to supply physicians to urban counties than to rural counties. In addition, non-physician clinicians, such as nurse practitioners, also practice disproportionately in urban areas.

While there are family physicians in each of Arizona's 15 counties, six counties do not have a cardiologist or gastroenterologist, and four counties don't have an anesthesiologist or psychiatrist.

Physician assistants represent a large percentage of the clinician work force in some rural counties, and 26 percent of Arizona's physician assistants work in rural areas.

The specialties most likely to be affected by retirements include general surgery, psychiatry and family medicine. By 2010, 406 of Arizona 's family physicians, 171 of Arizona's psychiatrists and 99 of Arizona 's general surgeons currently in practice will be 65 years old or older.

The report concludes there is a need to assess the supply of other health care professionals – nurses, pharmacists, dentists and medical technologists – as a basis for devising effective polices to meet increasing health care needs throughout the state.

The study can be obtained by sending an e-mail to ( or (