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Arizona third-worst in per capita health care workers amid pandemic

Arizona is lacking hospital space and intensive care beds as the state grapples with COVID-19, and it also is among the worst in the country for the number of health care workers available to treat those who fall ill.

Arizona ranked 48 in health care workers per capita, slightly ahead of California and Nevada, according to a new report by Self Financial.

The report comes amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, in which hospitals are not only facing shortages of coronavirus testing kits and protective personal equipment, but are also lacking the number of personnel needed to keep up with the growing number of cases. 

Nationwide, the report showed that there is a shortage of health care workers in Southern and Western states in comparison to Northeastern and Midwestern states.  

“As the nation grapples with containing the disease in the short run and looks ahead to the mass retirement of baby boomers in the long run, it is clear that additional health care support is needed and newly minted medical professionals should be incentivized to move to areas with significant shortages,” the report said. 

Self Financial’s analysis showed that Arizona has a total of 235,110 health care workers, which amounts to 3.28 workers for every 100 residents. 

By comparison, Massachusetts – which ranks first nationwide – has a total of 348,910 health care workers, which equates to 5.06 workers for every 100 residents. 

The total number of health care workers included both doctors and nurses, as well as support occupations, like nursing assistants and home health aides. 

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The report also broke down the number of health care workers by cities, categorizing them into large, medium, and small based on their population. 

Among small cities, Arizona has two among the worst in the nation: The Sierra Vista-Douglas metro region was second-worst in health care workers per capita, while Yuma was sixth-worst. 

Daniel Dirksen, associate vice president for Health Equity, Outreach & Interprofessional Activities at the University of Arizona, said one of the major factors as to why Arizona ranks near the bottom in the number of health care workers is because of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

Medical students have to go through four years of medical school, but they can’t practice medicine until they complete residency training, which can take anywhere from three to seven years. 

Each state is allocated a number of subsidized slots for students to complete their residency training. Dirksen said the federal government capped the number of slots for each state in 1997 and hasn’t increased the number since

And with Arizona’s population growing by more than 3 million people since 1997, there are not enough slots for medical students to study in the state, forcing them to move elsewhere.  

population growth az

“A lot of our graduates from medical schools have to go outside the state to get their residency because there are just not enough residency slots in Arizona to keep them here,” Dirksen said. “And what our data shows is that people leave, they don’t come back. They start a family, they get settled in the area.”

A 2019 report by the University of Arizona showed that Arizona isthe worst in the nation for its ratio of primary care physicians to residents. Efforts since the early 2000s to increase funding for graduate medical education – essentially, the state paying to expand residency slots – has rarely resulted in more money. In the last decade, the GOP-led legislature has not approved any increases.

Dirksen said there are many other factors that are contributing to such low numbers of health care personnel in Arizona, including medical school costs and the lack of health care infrastructure in rural areas. 

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One solution that universities are utilizing to face the pandemic is allowing medical students to graduate early and enter the field as soon as possible to help in shortages of health care personnel. 

The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix is allowing fourth-year students to graduate early and start working in a clinical setting by mid-April to help combat the pandemic. 

In Arizona, there are 1,769 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 41 deaths as of April 3, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Nationwide, there are 258,214 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 6,605 deaths as of April 3, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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