ATLANTA — Georgia is looking for answers as it confronts a looming shortage of doctors.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that projections show the state will fall about 5,000 physicians short of needed levels by 2030.
The state will be under pressure to loosen its tight restrictions on nurse practitioners and physician assistants to meet demands for care. Such professionals can take some of the load off doctors by seeing patients. But many doctors oppose changing the rules, which they say helps protect quality patient care. Some physicians have fought for years against state legislation aimed at giving nurse practitioners greater autonomy.
Georgia is ranked 41st nationally for its supply of doctors. Already, medical schools are preparing for the transition to a system where health-care providers other than doctors play a more vital role in medicine.
Schools are training a range of professionals to employ a team-based approach to health care.
“We have to choose to do what I think the numbers demand,” said Dr. Wright Caughman, Emory University’s executive vice president for health affairs.
Georgia has some of the nation’s most restrictive regulations for health professionals like physician assistants.
Unlike Georgia, some states allow nurse practitioners to order an MRI or prescribe a narcotic without a doctor’s approval. Georgia also requires a formal written agreement with a doctor that spells out medical tasks a nurse practitioner can perform.
Other states, including Washington and Arizona, allow nurse practitioners to practice independently without a doctor’s oversight.
How states choose to regulate nurse practitioners and other providers is going to be the critical difference in how states make sure their residents have care, said Tay Kopanos, director of health policy for state affairs at the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
“Unfortunately, a lot of states have not kept pace,” Kopanos said. “Provisions put in place decades ago are really no longer protecting the public.”
Many doctors in Georgia disagree. Dr. John Moore, an Atlanta obstetrician, said he fears patients won’t see physicians as often — if at all — as professionals other than doctors fill in gaps created by the shortage.
“They are not trained as well as doctors and they’re going to miss some stuff, and that’s a scary thing to me,” he said.
In Georgia, numbers of physician assistants and nurse practitioners both have jumped by nearly 40 percent in the past five years.
By some estimates, the nation will be short 90,000 doctors by 2020.