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But in recent years, doctors and medical school groups have re-examined the issue of doctor supply and now warn of a large shortfall in coming decades.
The Association of American Medical Colleges said last year that if current demand and supply patterns continue, the U.S. will have about 750,000 doctors by 2025 -- about 159,000 fewer than it needs. The shortage will be particularly acute for primary care doctors, the group said.
The medical school group called for stepped up recruiting of minority group students more likely to practice in underserved areas. It also called for adding 1,500 spots each year to the National Health Service Corps, which finances training for medical students who work in underserved areas after graduation.
One area already facing a doctor shortage is El Paso, Texas, where Texas Tech University greets the entering class at the Paul Foster School of Medicine on July 13.
Northerners migrating to the Sun Belt and immigrants arriving from Latin America have driven up demand for doctors, and 30 to 35 percent of El Paso's doctors now are graduates of medical schools outside the U.S., said the school's founding dean, Dr. Jose Manuel de la Rosa.
Also accepting their first entering classes this year are Florida International University in Miami, the University of Central Florida in Orlando and Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, Pa.
Nationwide, enrollments already are edging up. Accredited schools accepted 18,036 new medical students in 2008, up 9.1 percent from 16,538 in 2003. The number of students applying for admission rose 21.4 percent in that period, from 34,786 to 42,231.
The AMA warns that expanding medical school enrollment leaves another big problem unanswered: Coming up with the $200,000 per year it takes to train new doctors during their three- to seven-year residencies.
The federal Medicare program has financed residencies since 1965, but the government capped the number of positions at about 98,000 in 1997, Rohack said. The actual number of residents has risen since then, with hospitals financing the extra slots through stopgap measures.
"If we can take the cap off ... then American society will be better served," he said. "Most societies that are successful tend to have healthy populations."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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