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Oct. 11, 2005

Doctors’ Claim in New TV Ad, That Physicians Are Fleeing Washington  State, Simply Doesn’t Add Up

Number of Doctors Is Actually Expanding Faster Than Population Growth

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The latest claim by doctors backing Initiative 330 – that high malpractice premiums are driving doctors from Washington state – is not supported by official statistics from the state health department. The claim is featured in a new ad released today by Doctors, Nurses and Patients for a Healthy Washington, the political committee campaigning for the initiative.

Adjusted for population growth, the number of Washington doctors with active licenses has increased markedly, growing from 294.3 doctors per 100,000 population in 1993 to 322.9 for 2005. Moreover, in the past four years, the rate of increase has more than doubled – from a 0.55 percent average annual rate for 1993-2001 to 1.22 percent for 2001-04.

Just as the total number of doctors in Washington is growing, so, too, is a closely related indicator – the number of newly licensed physicians. Adjusted for population growth, the number of newly licensed doctors has grown 20.2 percent over the past decade, or 1.9 percent on an average annual basis. The growth has turned up markedly in the past two years, increasing from 19.7 doctors per 100,000 population in 2003 to 22.0 in 2005, for an average annual increase of 5.7 percent.

Doctors and their insurers say these figures are unreliable because the number of licensed physicians is “completely unrelated” to the number of doctors who are actually treating patients. However, these figures track the number of licensed doctors over time. Some licensed doctors are not in active practice, but, as doctors themselves know, the number of licensed physicians and number of actively practicing physicians move together over time. Therefore, year-to-year comparisons are valid. Additionally, newly licensed doctors cannot be fleeing the state, because they weren’t there to begin with. It is also unlikely these doctors would seek a license in the state if they did not intend to practice. As Public Citizen said in a report last month, malpractice premiums are indeed up, but this is due to insurance industry investment and business practices, not lawsuits and the legal system. Instead of trying to cut off the legal rights of patients injured by medical negligence or error, doctors should seek insurance reform and strive to provide safer medical care to prevent injuries and thus lawsuits.

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