Opinion: To prevent a physician shortage, legislators need to ease up abortion regulations

·4 min read

Sara Duque, Shereen Farooq and Kaley Parchinski are second-year medical students in Athens. They hope to one day work as primary care physicians with underserved populations.

The exact week we were learning about pregnancy as medical students, Politico released the draft majority opinion overruling Roe v. Wade.

We are three female students attending Georgia’s only public medical school (whose views we do not represent). The three of us come from medically underserved areas in Georgia that house more Waffle Houses than hospitals.

With a national shortage of physicians, federal and state governments bank on us one day returning home to staff medically underserved hospitals and clinics. This is because research shows we are the students most likely to do so.

However, recent legislation has made it increasingly difficult for students like us to justify returning to our home counties and states to practice medicine.

Unintended consequences of the heartbeat bill

In 2019, the Georgia state legislature passed HB 481, banning abortion after 6 weeks. After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a federal appeals court allowed the law to take effect.

The so-called "heartbeat" law is unclear when it comes to repercussions for Georgian physicians who provide abortions past the 6-week mark. This is a point most women do not know they are pregnant and, our embryology textbook tells us, the heart is still developing.

And because the law provides “personhood” status to fetuses, it’s also unclear what would happen if we performed an abortion we deemed medically necessary, but courts or lawmakers decide later it wasn’t.

Unlike medical residents or physicians licensed in certain states, we students haven’t begun our careers yet. We still have some latitude when choosing where to practice. Why would we elect to serve an underserved county in a state that may criminalize our medical care?

More about Georgia's 'heartbeat' law: Athens leaders and organizations react

Taking a stand

Hundreds of people attend an abortions rights rally in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade on Saturday, June 25, 2022 in downtown Athens.
Hundreds of people attend an abortions rights rally in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade on Saturday, June 25, 2022 in downtown Athens.

These days, medical students are not just reading textbooks and patient charts. We are organizing and asserting our presence in politics.

According to a 2019 study on the ideology of medical students, our presence is generally left-leaning with 47.7% identifying as liberal. In addition, the majority of medical students matriculating are now women, who have historically voted for liberal candidates.

Along with our political leanings, medical student organizations exemplify our views of abortion’s role in our future medical practice.

The American Medical Student Association, the largest and oldest independent association of medical students in the United States released a statement condemning the decision by the Supreme Court and calling medical students to action.

The organization Medical Students for Choice supports chapters on medical school campuses and residency programs in 28 countries. All four allopathic medical schools in Georgia - including ours - host a chapter.

While it may just be a louder sampling, the place to tap into the medical student zeitgeist is the internet.

Top posts on r/medicalschool, the most popular medical student subreddit, express contemplations about future residency applications for locations within “trigger law” states. Student Doctor Network, another popular messaging board for students, is having similar discussions.

Preventing a physician shortage

Some medical students have already begun to make the choice we are contemplating now and are choosing to attend residency in states without anti-abortion laws. They aren’t wagering their medical careers on the whims of state lawmakers.

Even though about 20% of our country's population lives in rural areas, only 9% of physicians practice in those communities. Ethnic and racial minorities, especially those in rural areas, have an even higher barrier to healthcare.

Georgia has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the nation, one that is even more abysmal for Black and Hispanic mothers.

The federal government has reported on the doctor dearth in rural areas for years now and projects a deficit of over 20,000 primary care physicians by 2025.

State legislatures are funding public medical schools like ours in an attempt to address these issues. During the 2022 legislative session, Governor Brian Kemp and the Georgia General Assembly allocated $8.7 million toward a program at our school that covers the tuition of students who commit to practicing medicine in an underserved county in Georgia.

For subscribers: Roe v. Wade repeal leaves Georgia women of faith who support abortion rights worried

These grim statistics are part of why we chose to study medicine in our home state of Georgia. We don’t want to be a part of the physician shortage problem. The three of us currently intend to pursue careers in primary care, but current legislation is making it increasingly harder to give up our own medical safety and continue making the altruistic choice.

Amidst a pandemic, we slogged through the process of applying to medical school and chose to attend a public school whose mission is to serve Georgians. Soon, we will be doctors and will decide where we want to practice medicine.

If Georgia and other states with large underserved populations aim to attract a diverse physician population, then they must create environments where physicians feel safe enough to practice.

We ask them to address the fact that the very population they are seeking are the ones staunchly opposed to their state legislation.

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Georgia abortion laws risk worsening physician shortage | Future doctors