Professors from the Center for Health Services Research at UNC has developed a new online tool, which will allow anyone to have a more visual glimpse into the future of the healthcare workforce.

The FutureDocs Forecasting Tool will allow health care providers and anyone interested to be more aware to fluctuations in what specialties of doctors will or will not be available in the near future. With the possibility of adding Medicaid to the Affordable Care Act, there comes the risk of an overwhelming number of patients to a limited number of doctors, which may potentially pose a problem for North Carolina. However, the FutureDocs tool can accurately evaluate the number of available physicians and their specialties of any particular local to even national area. The tool also accounts for differing variables that may occur, including situations like expansion of Medicaid.

Assistant Professor in Family Medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and leader of the team that developed the tool, Dr. Erin Fraher, describes what the program is and how it was designed for anyone to access and use.

“The FutureDocs Forecasting Tool is an interactive, web-based tool that gives better information about what health workforce shortages might exist in the future,” says Dr. Fraher. “It’s innovative, new, and different because we actually created a tool that you could access yourself online and you can create your own customized visualization. Fundamentally, this tool is different because most past workforce models have started with the question of how many doctors are we going to need; we started with the question of what are the patients’ needs for healthcare, and what different configurations of physicians might be able to meet those needs.”

From the model and forecasting that has been developed for this tool, Dr. Fraher says that the national issue is not the lack of doctors, but what kind of doctors there are.

“The key message from our findings is that everyone is talking about national shortages of upwards of 130,000 physicians, and in fact, our model shows that overall the workforce nationally and in North Carolina is in balance,” says Dr. Fraher. “The main issue is one of distribution. We don’t have physicians in the right places, and we don’t have them in the right specialties.”

For the past three years, Dr. Fraher has worked alongside a team of specialists to make this tool a reality, including economists, workforce planners, cartographers, web developers, and more.

“We as workforce researchers got tired of looking at workforce models that came out with the answer,” says Dr. Fraher. “People need to think and move beyond the idea that there’s one answer. This health system is changing so quickly that we need a model that accounts for different scenarios that might happen.”

While there are parts throughout the U.S. that fear that they are lacking in the number of necessary doctors, Dr. Fraher says that North Carolina is doing well and is currently evenly balanced, particularly in the Triad region of the state. While she says there does appear to be signs of a red flag with the probable decline in capacity to provide circulatory doctors as well as the often-flexible internal medicine physicians, there is healthy growth in the number of internal medicine specialties, such as endocrinology.

“The idea is that people need to use the tool to counter some anecdotal evidences out there,” says Dr. Fraher. “We keep hearing that the expansion of Medicaid would cause a shortage; not really, is what our model is saying.”

When it comes to making a change uin the presence of physicians throughout the country, Dr. Fraher says that we need for doctors need to focus on general medicine rather than specializing and to spread training out to more areas.

“We have a mal-distribution of physicians and we also have a mal-distribution of training, and those places that have more physicians have more training,” says Dr. Fraher. “We really have got to think about getting training decentralized, out into communities that need physicians. We also need to think about trying to get general internal medicine residents to stay in general internal medicine.”

The FutureDocs tool is a program that is designed for everyone to use, and for Dr. Fraher and her team, that means even those that have the power to decide where healthcare practitioners should be distributed and. She says she wants this program to create a broad and lasting impact on how the workforce is structured for the future.

“We hope that health systems and others will use the data to help figure out innovative ways that they might configure their workforce,” says Dr. Fraher. “We want to give people the data they need to redesign the way they are delivering care and have the information they need to know what’s coming down the pike for them.”

For more information and to use the FutureDocs Forecasting Tool for yourself, click here.