Over a span of just a few years, Pennsylvania physician leaders have gone from warning of a declining number of doctors in the state to heralding new data - released last week - that shows their numbers are growing again.

The ranks of practicing physicians have grown to nearly 32,000 in recent years, an increase of several thousand, according to the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

That should be good news for patients seeking care for everything from the common cold to a chronic ailment.

In Philadelphia, a region heavily dependent on life sciences, the healthier outlook for the recruitment and retention of doctors also signals an upbeat economic trend.

The fact that doctors are choosing to practice in the state, in part due to lower medical malpractice payouts, shows yet another benefit from earlier legal reforms that already are helping to moderate medical spending.

But while welcoming the news on physician retention, the medical society also notes cause for concern. Twinned with a companion report on access to care, the medical society's third State of Medicine report finds that there are physician gaps in many parts of the state.

In Philadelphia, for instance, higher hospital admissions for diabetes, asthma, and heart failure than in many other regions indicate that patients with these conditions aren't getting adequate care. Elsewhere, the medical society found too few physicians specializing in obstetrics, pediatrics, and primary care. In more than half the counties, the average age of doctors is over 50, the medical society found.

So despite the growth in physician numbers overall, the problem of access to care is only going to get worse, not better. That's because thousands of additional patients who obtain health coverage under the national health system overhaul surely will strain the supply of physicians and other health-care providers.

Of course, the time to start planning is now - and not when patients are lined up out the door.

The medical society reports stand as a challenge to policy-makers and stakeholders in the face of this coming spike in the number of patients. As the society suggests, the reports should be the "starting points for collaboration with local, regional and state stakeholders to address access-to-care issues."

Those stakeholders clearly need to get together and come up with ways to train, retain, and recruit more doctors in the state.

Given the fact that native Pennsylvanians who train for medical careers are more likely to set up practices in their home state, it makes sense to encourage those career choices in every way possible. An emphasis on the sciences in K-12 is vital. At the pre-med level, medical schools might benefit in recruiting from additional tuition pricing incentives or tax credits for in-state students.

With the challenges ahead in maintaining the state's overall positive climate for access to medical care, it's at least better to have a physician head count on the rise, like a fever chart - rather than one that's flatlining.