Healthcare report identifies statewide shortcomings, technological solutions

by | Jul 8, 2024

A healthcare report identified barriers to healthcare access in Florida, such as cost, facility accessibility, insurance coverage, and a physician shortage, while proposing technological advancements like telehealth as potential solutions.

A healthcare report published by Florida TaxWatch last month identified barriers to health care access in Florida, including cost, facility accessibility, insurance coverage, and a physician shortage as contributing factors, with technological advancements presenting a possible lifeline.

Cost remains an obstacle for many Floridians, with a 2019 survey noting that 55 percent of residents face financial strain from healthcare expenses and 78 percent are worried about future costs. Such financial burdens often result in delayed treatments, skipped medications, and untreated conditions, which worsen health outcomes and escalate long-term costs, and the report recommends evaluating state policies on healthcare costs and considering reforms such as Medicaid expansion and state-level insurance mandates.

“The biggest contributor to inaccessible health care is cost,” the report states. “According to the National Health Interview Survey, as of 2019, 8.5 percent of U.S. residents were unable to obtain, or delayed obtaining, medical care due to costs.”

Florida TaxWatch also highlighted disparities in healthcare access between urban and rural areas, finding that rural regions have significantly fewer healthcare providers, about 1.3 physicians per 1,000 people, compared to 3.1 per 1,000 in urban areas. The report further claimed that primary care offices with limited hours, exclusively urban locations, and cultural barriers can further exacerbate existing disparity in healthcare services.

“Rural areas, low-income neighborhoods, areas with dense populations of minority groups, generally have fewer health care facilities,” the document said. “Such a disparity was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic nationwide. Individuals faced an increased risk of severe illness, inconsistent health care due to unreliable transportation, and fewer physicians due to residential segregation.”

Moreover, Florida consistently ranks among the bottom ten states for the percentage of uninsured citizens. In 2022, 11.2 percent of Floridians were uninsured, compared to the national average of 8 percent. A lack of insurance can often result in postponed doctor visits, skipped preventative measures, and untreated chronic conditions, deteriorating the broader public health. Underinsurance is also prevalent, with many individuals facing substantial out-of-pocket expenses.

Uninsured individuals frequently rely on emergency departments for health care due to lack of access to lower-cost care, but not all services are free, putting them at financial risk. A 2021 study found that 3.2 million uninsured emergency patients nationwide faced potentially catastrophic health expenses, with only 35 percent of these bills forgiven by hospitals. The remaining unpaid bills cause financial harm to both individuals and hospitals. From 2015 to 2017, the government spent an estimated $42.4 billion annually on uncompensated care for the uninsured, with 80 percent covered by public funding, totaling nearly $102 billion over three years. Consequently, uninsured people often avoid seeking care, leading to poorer health outcomes, reduced productivity, lost work time, and lower earnings..

Compounding accessibility issues, the state needs an additional 22,000 physicians by 2030 to meet growing demand, particularly in rural areas. This shortage leads to longer wait times for appointments, reduced time with physicians, and increased travel distances for specialist care. The report proposed strategies to address this shortage, including expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, increasing funding for medical education, and offering incentives for physicians to work in underserved areas.

According to data presented to the House Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee in November, 20 percent of Florida’s physicians, totaling 65,000 healthcare professionals, are aged 60 or above and are likely to retire within the next five to ten years. Supplementary data aggregated by the Association of American Medical Colleges showed that Florida ranks sixth among all states in terms of the highest percentage of physicians over 60 years of age.

Per the Physicians Survey conducted by the state, physicians aged 50 to 59 comprise the largest group of Florida practitioners, at 25.2 percent, with an average overall age of 53. Further, 4.7 percent, or 2,512 registered physicians in Florida reported that they plan to move out of the state within the next five years. Using feedback from the survey, the agency identified nine counties where at least 25 percent of their physicians indicated that they intend to retire within the next five years.

“Retirements are disproportionately affecting smaller counties,” said Florida Department of Health Division of Public Health Statistics Director Emma Spencer in November.

The Florida TaxWatch report turned to advancements in technology as promising avenues to improve health care access, particularly the surge of telehealth and telemedicine. These technologies, it asserted,  can reduce the need for travel, make health care more accessible in remote areas, and provide timely care. Additionally, mobile health units and the potential of artificial intelligence to enhance diagnostic accuracy and personalize treatment plans are discussed.

“Every Floridian should be able to obtain essential and affordable healthcare services where and when they are needed. Making this a reality will depend in large part on our ability to decentralize the provision of health care in areas where access has been limited, and to use advances in technology (e.g., artificial intelligence) to build a betterconnected healthcare system,” the report reads. “Decentralization means bringing health care to the patients instead of bringing the patients to health care. One approach is to physically bring healthcare personnel, equipment, and treatment services to unserved or underserved communities.”


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