The degree to which a reformed U.S. health care system relies on an adequate supply of primary care physicians will determine the urgency of change in the composition of the medical workforce. In many areas of the United States, the demand for primary care physicians, particularly in managed care settings, far exceeds the supply. In contrast, reports of reduced practice opportunities for medical and surgical subspecialists in the same settings are increasing. As opportunities for and incomes of primary care physicians are enhanced, some medical subspecialists may seek retraining in primary care. This article provides a context for understanding the development of physician retraining programs, examines precedents for retraining physicians, describes four possible pathways through which medical subspecialists might acquire primary care training, and emphasizes the importance of defining the scope of practice and necessary skills for providing primary care. Obstacles to retraining appear to be economic (Who will pay? Is the cost worth the benefit?) and jurisdictional (Who will define core competencies? Who will credential programs and trainees?). The current absence of demand for such retraining programs suggests either that marketplace-induced changes will not take place or that the notion of a primary care provider shortage and an oversupply of medical subspecialists is overstated. The inclusion of physician retraining programs in proposed health reform legislation suggests that policymakers are convinced that such programs offer one viable solution to the nation’s medical workforce needs.
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