How Will Puerto Rico’s Doctor Shortage Affect COVID-19 Efforts?

Puerto Rico’s population is still dwindling, and one group of people is leaving in especially large numbers: healthcare professionals. NPI has updated their data on this problem. “From 2010 to 2020, there has been a systematic rise in the number of health care professionals leaving Puerto Rico. Spanning the eight-year period between 2010 and 2019, not less than 1,948 doctors and surgeons left Puerto Rico to live permanently in the United States [1]. That equates to 13 percent of the more than 10,000 doctors and surgeons who worked on the island during that time. The numbers have only been getting worse.”

New data tells us that the problem of healthcare access in Puerto Rico continues to get worse.

2016 was the peak year, with 341 doctors leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland. The number fell to 230 the following year, the year Hurricane Maria hit, ¬†and rose again to 289 in 2018. 237 physicians left the Island in 2019. Puerto Rico’s College of Physicians and Surgeons estimates that there are only about 9,000 doctors practicing in Puerto Rico now.

Coronavirus

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, patients in Puerto Rico waited for hours for a scheduled appointment and sometimes for months to see a specialist. They may have to travel significant distances, too. Only 16 cities in Puerto Rico list a pulmonologist (lung doctor), for example. If people who may have COVID-19 have to travel and wait in order to see a doctor who can help them, they risk spreading the disease further.

In addition, people who are already in poor health may have to delay treatment as the coronavirus outbreak puts additional pressure on the Island’s already fragile healthcare system. An outbreak of dengue fever has been confirmed in Puerto Rico, and this will add to the problem.

Why do doctors leave Puerto Rico?

Doctors make half as much working in Puerto Rico as they can expect to make in a state. Different payments under Medicaid and the poverty level on the Island cause this. Still, their income is well above the average in the territory.

Many physicians who have chosen to leave express their frustration with the limitations on care in Puerto Rico. They say that they have recommended treatments and received orders to use a cheaper option instead. They are trying to do their jobs with inadequate supplies, and that affects their satisfaction.

There are also advantages to living in a state, and medical professionals can easily find work in the states. A medical student who goes to a state for an internship may choose to stay there.

The territory tried slashing income taxes for doctors, but quickly saw that the incentive was not enough to keep doctors working in Puerto Rico.

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