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Latest Findings on the Looming Physician Shortage

Concerned  middle aged doctor

The doctor shortage in the U.S. will likely get worse before it gets better.

According to data published in June 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Trusted Source Association of American Medical Colleges Highly respected medical organization Go to source , the United States will be short between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034. The AAMC projects a shortage of between 21,000 and 77,100 non-primary care specialty physicians, including surgeons, oncologists, and cardiologists.

Those projections were based on data gathered before the COVID-19 pandemic upended healthcare. It’s too soon to predict the full impact of the pandemic, but its ripple effects will probably reshape medicine and healthcare in the years to come.

Here’s what the latest information shows about the physician shortage:

1. Demand for physicians is outpacing supply.

Though some physicians were furloughed during the pandemic (due to lack of demand for services when COVID-19 restrictions canceled elective procedures) overall demand for physicians continues to outpace supply. Despite increasing enrollment in medical schools—including an increase in funding for training slots through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021—the AAMC predicts a projected total doctor shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.

Because the pandemic interrupted the education of medical students and residents (as well as the college, high school, and K-8 students behind them), the entry of the next generation of physicians into the workforce may be delayed.

2. Removal of barriers to care may increase demand for doctors.

Increasing attention to healthcare disparities has led to calls to expand access to healthcare. The AAMC found that demand could rise by an additional 102,400 to 180,400 physicians if underserved populations had healthcare use patterns similar to populations with fewer access barriers.

Increased demand for services may seem counterintuitive, as removal of barriers to care would increase access to preventive care and likely decrease demand for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer care. However, decreases in chronic disease may lead to increased lifespans—and additional demand for gerontology specialists, among other types of late-life care.

3. Gerontology may become an in-demand specialty.

Between 2019 and 2034, the United States population under age 18 is projected to grow just 5.6%. Conversely, the population age 65 and older is predicted to grow by 42.4%, while the 75-and-older population may grow nearly 74%.

The AAMC predicts that by 2034, 42% of the demand for physician services will be for the care of people aged 65 and older, compared to 34% of demand now.

4. Demand for hospitalist physicians may decline.

Over the last decade, hospitals and healthcare systems have hired many hospitalists. However, there’s some evidence to suggest that demand may be tapering off. According to the AAMC, “If the annual number of primary-care-trained physicians becoming hospitalists remains similar over time, then by 2034, general hospitalist supply will be between about 2,700 and 7,000 higher than the estimated demand.”

5. COVID-related burnout may hasten physician retirements, exacerbating the physician shortage.

More than 2 out of 5 currently active physicians will be at least 65 years old within the next decade, and a wave of expected retirements is a major driver of concerns about the physician workforce. Some evidence suggests that the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may cause some physicians to retire early.

In August 2020, 43% of over age 45 physicians surveyed by Merritt Hawkins for the Physician Foundation said they would like to retire in the next year; 21% of doctors aged 45 and younger also expressed an interest in retiring within a year. Likely, many of these physicians will not retire within the next year or so; however, if a significant number of doctors decide to leave the profession prior to age 65, the projected physician shortage may become even more problematic.

The physician shortage is a complex issue with no one simple answer. In light of the short- and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems and practices will need to work even harder toward educational, political, cultural and financial solutions to meet growing patient demand while still maintaining a high quality of care.

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  1. The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2019 to 2034. Association of American Medical Colleges.
  2. The Physician’s Foundation 2020 Survey of America’s Physicians: COVID-19 Impact Edition. The Physician’s Foundation.
  3. Will There Be a Doctor in the House? Physician Supply, Demand and Staffing During and Post-COVID-19. Merritt Hawkins.
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