BUFFALO - For the movie buffs out there, Michael Cain's comment following the University at Buffalo's medical school groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday will seem very familiar.
"If you build it, they will come," the dean of UB's medical school said, referencing "Field of Dreams." Except Cain then ad-libbed a line of his own: "And they will stay."
That extra line is critical. No matter how glamorous this $375 million facility looks when it opens in Fall of 2016, and no matter how many out-of-state students it attracts to UB for medical school, the key will be to keep these future doctors in Western New York when they embark on their careers. The new medical school location will allow UB to increase its graduating class sizes from 140 to 180, but there's no guarantee the students who occupy those extra spots will choose to remain here after graduation.
"We're doing much more than just building a building downtown," said Nancy Nielsen, the former president of the American Medical Association and currently UB's Senior Associate Dean for Health Policy. "We're really investing in the future of this whole region by training physicians who we hope will stay here, and stay in specialties here, and then stay to practice."
As a nation, the United States faces a frightening shortage of physicians. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges' 2010 report, the country could have a projected shortage of 130,600 doctors across all specialties by 2025. In particular, primary care - which deals with family practice, internal medicine and pediatrics - faces a shortage of 65,800 by 2025 as well.
Although Western New York is hardly the only region with a need for more doctors, Cain said the number of physicians retiring during the next five years is projected to be higher here than other areas.
Nielsen agreed, centralizing the issue to primary care doctors.
"We're not getting the influx of young people the way we need to in order to meet the needs of our population," Nielsen said.
Nielsen said primary care doctors are often "undervalued" in terms of pay and job demand. She did say, however, that thanks to new partnerships between primary care practices and local insurers, the problem has been somewhat alleviated.
"There's no question that primary care is in the ascendency now," Nielsen said. "And more and more people are going into it. But we just want people to not only go into primary care, but to stay here, and choose to stay here, and take care of the population that supported them in their medical education."
UB's increase of 40 students is not uncommon. Nielsen said most medical schools across the country have tried to expand due to the doctor shortage crisis, but these expansions are expensive. Training doctors in medical school requires more than a simple pen and notepad in a lecture hall, and it often requires schools to find more spots for clinical training.
The problem can't be solved just by expanding medical schools, though.
"Our population has grown, but our residency slots for training physicians after medical school have remained stable for many years. And that's a problem," Nielsen said. "Because that essentially puts a cap on the number of physicians who can become residency trained."
For that reason, there simply aren't enough doctors to treat patients they way they deserve to be treated.
"There is no question that there is a need in the country," Nielsen said. "And there certainly is a need in Western New York."