The impacts of the historic shortage of primary-care physicians in the United States have been heightened by the COVID-19 crisis. That shortage is expected to get worse, and it’s exacerbated by misguided state policies restricting out-of-state doctors from practicing within their borders.
Due to factors including aging patient populations and doctor retirement rates, the U.S. is expected to see a shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians by 2033, according to a recent report from the American Association of Medical Colleges. Among the states predicted to be hardest hit by the shortfall are Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico.
To address the public-health problems the current shortage has caused during the pandemic, some states have temporarily allowed out-of-state doctors to practice within their borders with little to no additional training or certification. State policymakers now have a great opportunity to make the temporary permanent.
Since 1847, the American Medical Association has lobbied every state to enforce their own medical-licensing laws, with peripheral federal oversight, even though licensing qualifications to practice medicine are generally dictated by national specialization organizations such as the American Board of Surgery and are practically identical from state-to-state. Such consistency should make state-level licensure redundant and unnecessary.
However, until recently, doctors were unilaterally barred from practicing in states where they had not been licensed. They couldn’t even provide telemedicine support to patients beyond their state borders. These laws were defended on the grounds that they promote safety, but as with most professional licensing laws, the real motivation was, at least in part, money. Medical boards have used licensing regimes to rake in over $100 million annually in certification and testing fees from aspiring doctors.
When the COVID-19 crisis hit the U.S. health-care system last year, the limitations of state licensing quickly became apparent. Hospitals in regions with high COVID-19 case numbers were in desperate need of more physicians, and the temporary relaxation of cross-state licensing restrictions enabled hard-hit hospitals to staff up quickly to better cope with surges in COVID cases. As a result of this successful experiment born of crisis, even the AMA is now beginning to support the idea of universal licensing within the United States.
One state is pointing the way to more sensible licensing regimes. Utah has not only permanently opened its doors to doctors from other states but also implemented policies to speed up their licensing processes. In fact, Utah has been at the forefront of medical access for years, even allowing doctors licensed in Canada to practice within its borders since 2014.
And the state has continued to build on these sensible policies: Anticipating the COVID-19 hospitalization surge in late March 2020, Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation to streamline licensing in nearly all non-medical fields. That freed up resources for Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to focus on approving new doctors who wanted to work in the state, and division staff were able to approve 22 percent more doctors in 2020 compared to 2019. It’s likely that these additional doctors are contributing to Utah’s low COVID-19 death rate, currently the nation’s sixth-lowest.
Technically, Utah is willing to license doctors certified in any country, but the state gives preferential treatment to Canadian-certified doctors because that country’s licensing requirements are so similar to those in the United States. Non-Canadian foreign doctors still must complete two years of Utah medical residency before they can practice in the state. Many other states require Canadian doctors to complete this two-year residency as well, but Utah’s policy has allowed a number of Canadian doctors to treat COVID-19 patients in the state immediately.
But why stop at Canada? New Jersey did temporarily allow physicians from other countries to practice in the state at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the state has already suspended new applications, but such provisional licensing for all foreign doctors should be the next step for all states.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on regulations that have prevented the U.S. health-care system from operating as efficiently as possible. States with immediate physician needs amid the pandemic, and those expecting to see doctor shortages in the coming years, should follow Utah’s lead. It’s never been more important to allow doctors to practice where they are most needed.
A version of this column previously appeared in Governing.