Teaching Health Centers Are Vital to Solving Physician Shortage in Illinois

Although more Americans now have insurance coverage, many still lack easy access to a local primary care physician. By 2030, Illinois will need 1,063 more primary care physicians to meet our residents’ health care needs. Despite that glaring need, our best resource — the Teaching Health Center (THC) Graduate Medical Education Program — could end on September 30 unless Congress votes to reauthorize and appropriately fund it.

The Northwestern University/McGaw/Erie Family Health Center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood is one of only 59 teaching health centers in the nation, located in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Our mission is to train family physicians with an emphasis on caring for the underserved, research and public policy. Since 2010, we have been producing clinically excellent and culturally competent primary care physicians that continue to work in underserved communities throughout their careers. Because we are in the community, we can focus our training on health care prevention and chronic disease management in the outpatient setting, away from the costly hospital. I have personally testified before Congress about the success of our program and the comprehensive care we provide to our community.

According to research, nine out of 10 teaching health center graduates say they intend to work in primary care, and more than three in four want to work in underserved communities. The HealthResources and Services Administration data confirm that residents training in community-based settings such as teaching health centers are three times more likely than hospital trained residents to practice primary care in an underserved setting. Our program receives roughly 1,000 applications for our eight residency positions, meaning thousands of potential community-based physicians are turned away each year across the country.

History shows that most family physicians ultimately practice within 100 miles of their residency program. Funding THCs in rural Illinois could provide needed primary care to communities that currently lack local sources of care and physicians who choose to stay there. Teaching health centers are key to meeting the demand for primary medical care among the 3.4 million Illinois residents in health professions shortage areas across the state.

The “Teaching Health Centers Graduate Medical Education Extension Act of 2017,” HR 3394 and S 1754 is bipartisan legislation introduced in the US House and Senate that reauthorizes the program, provides more funding and lays a pathway to train even more physicians. Most of all, the legislation will help build the primary care physician pipeline to reduce costs, improve patient care, and support underserved rural and urban communities. Congress should act quickly to pass this legislation before this vital program expires and our residents are left without much-needed medical services.