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As reported by WTNH Channel 8, November 5, 2009.

Doctor Shortage Reaching Critical Level

Are you having a tough time getting in to see a doctor? A new study says patient access to medical care in our state is at a critical level.

Dr. Peter Gates is just beginning his day at his New London practice.

"We're booked solid, booked solid today," said Dr. Gates' office manager, Cheryl Douton.

"Any room for emergencies?"

"Not right now," Douton responded.

And that's how it usually is most days at GP Family Care.

"I'm behind already. I was behind after the first one, it happens every day," Dr. Gates said.

"So you limit the number of patients you see everyday so that you can be the doctor that you want to be?"

"Yeah, I can't work in a system where I have to see 35-40 patients a day and think that I did a good job and don't worry when I get home about the things that I missed because I just didn't have the time to think," Dr. Gates responded.

Mounds of paperwork cuts into that time.

"We get audited by Medicare, by insurance companies, by the malpractice companies and now by the pharmacies as to what we are doing," Dr. Gates said.

A study by Connecticut State Medical Society found that in this environment, physicians were less than "somewhat likely" to recommend a colleague to practice in Connecticut. Nineteen percent are considering a career change and 10 percent are planning to move out of state. And primary care physicians, like Dr. Gates, are feeling much of that pain.

"You can't make a living," he said.

"You're still here. Are you making a living?"

"Yes, but my kids are grown, they're through college. I worked three or four jobs while they were in college. There's no way on what I'm making now, you can send somebody to college," Dr. Gates said.

Dr. Rob Aseltine at University of Connecticut Health Center, the lead researcher of the study, says between factors like low reimbursement and high malpractice premiums, many find it tough to survive. So the key is making private practice more attractive.

"Primary care physicians tend to be less satisfied with their career in medicine and less likely to recommend their specialty area for practice," Dr. Aseltine said. "Some of it tied to cost of living, some of it tying to the liability environment and the risk that physicians perceive as they treat certain type of patients."

Medical schools like UConn are trying to address the problem through a mentoring program, but it's a hard sell. Dr. Bruce Gould is the Associate Dean for Primary Care.

"I just had one recently that said, 'I came in here wanting to do primary care but I have all these loans, I can't afford to,' so one way or the other we have to make that student obsolete," Dr. Gould said.

At Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Ronald Vender is the Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs.

"I don't think we do a good job preparing our trainees of the economics," he said. "A lot of people just assume that doctors are very focused on money and that's absolutely not the case, most are actually quite naive about the financial aspects of practice and are strictly in this to find meaningful work."

"Primary care is at the bottom of the payscale," Dr. Gates said. "My fee schedule is irrelevant. We have to accept what the insurance company pays or else we don't see any of their patients."

At 63 years old, Dr. Gates is years away from retirement, mostly because he cares for the people who rely on him, and knows there is no one to follow him.

"I love it, I love my patients, I enjoy talking to people, being with people. I'm absolutely honored that they want to share their lives with us," he said.

Dr. Gates says he gets up to five calls a day from people looking for a primary care physician.