Even after the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated just how critical a robust healthcare system is for public wellbeing, the US still faces a critical physician shortage. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the physician shortage statistics in the US will only get worse over time. They project that the US alone will face a deficiency of anywhere between 54,100 and 139,000 doctors by roughly 2033.
While this trend is frightening, there are still ways that this trend can be reversed or responded to in ways that don't leave large populations underserved by medical professionals. In the article below, we'll dive into what factors lead to the physician shortage, how it affects the medical field, and what can be done to prepare the future of care for the decreasing supply of medical providers.
Why is there a Physician Shortage?
How the medical system interacts with society is incredibly complicated, so there are many factors that lead to the current situation with a decreasing supply of trained physicians. While no one factor is solely responsible, together they create the environment that continues to lead to proportionally fewer physicians compared to the demand for care.
The doctor shortage across the US is especially complex because it involves both the supply and demand for physicians. In many ways, society's demand for medical professionals and, specifically, specialists is increasing. At the same time, proportionally fewer new doctors go into these fields. These two factors compound to create the perfect storm that the medical field now finds itself heading into.
Aging Physicians, Aging Populace
Not all generations are of equal size in the US, and year by year, the elderly population of the country grows. Despite Baby Boomers' aging population declining by nearly 6 million in the past decade, they are still nearly the largest generational group in the US. As their population ages, they require more and more healthcare services and more specialty services. This has increased the demand gradually as the elderly population in the US has grown exponentially over previous years.
On the supply side, doctors are aging as well. As a generation that is still a massive subset of the entire US populace crosses the retirement threshold, there simply aren't enough new physicians being trained to meet the increasing demand.
Unfortunately, this isn't a problem that will level out over time, as baby boomers may have been the first huge generation in the US, but certainly aren't the last. Generation X is only 6% smaller than the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials behind them are the single largest generational demographic in the US. This problem may start with the baby boomers reaching old age, but it's a problem that's unlikely to go away when future generations grow old.
Access to healthcare still isn't perfect across the US, but it's come a long way in recent decades. As more people have regular access to healthcare, the demand for doctors increases. With a decreasing supply of physicians, expanded access to previously underserved areas could eventually result in care being spread too thin. This will in turn lead back to access issues in underprivileged populations.
Shifting populations aren't equally distributed with physicians throughout the country, which, left unchecked, could potentially lead to some startling disparity in the availability of medical services across the country. In one 2020 study by The National Institute of Health, it was concluded that the healthcare systems in the Western US have the greatest potential vulnerability. The study concluded that by 2030, the Western US will have a shortage of 69 physician jobs per 100,000 people, whereas the Northeast will experience a physician deficit of just over half that amount.
The Physician Shortage by Specialty
As part of the reason that physicians are in short supply is an aging population, specialists are needed now more than ever. In the AAMC's projections on the physician shortage through 2033, they also broke down what specific specialties will be most affected by the growing doctor deficit by 2034 nationwide.
- Primary care: 17,800-48,00 physicians
- Surgical specialties: 15,800-30,200 physicians
- Medical specialties: 3,800-13,400 physicians
- Other specialty fields: 10,300-35,600 physicians
While a healthy population needs much more primary care providers like family medicine, pediatrics, and geriatric care doctors, an aging and generally less healthy population will require more specialists. As the population of the US ages, specialists of every kind throughout the US will grow more and more in demand.
How to Solve the Physician Shortage
Problems as complex as the trend towards systemic shortage in physicians don't have easy solutions. There are, however, several ways that may be the healthcare industry's best chance to combat the growing doctor shortage.
A growing trend to stem gaps in care created by the physician shortage is to cross-train physician extenders, who already do most of the work and have most of the knowledge of a doctor. For many issues, medically trained physician's assistants or certified anesthesiologists have all the knowledge they need to deal with many medical problems that they commonly see in their fields.
Transitioning these highly trained professionals out of antiquated roles such as initial screenings and paperwork processing potentially increases the efficiency of each physician team massively. Qualified physician extenders can work under the direct supervision of a doctor, while still functioning autonomously to greatly increase the scope of care that one physician team can provide.
Increase Awareness of and Interest in Specialty Fields
The National Center of Biotechnology identifies that the critical shortages in occupational and environmental medicine are systemic and require a cultural change to fully rectify. While cross-training more RNs, PRNs, PAs, and primary care physicians to deal with these specialized needs is commonly claimed to be an effective solution, that doesn't deal with the underlying cause.
Changes to the way we educate physicians and the number of specialist educators involved in formal medical education could shine a spotlight on under-recognized specialties that are incredibly necessary to public health. Unless new generations are encouraged to go into specialties that desperately need more physicians, any solution will be a temporary one at best.
The medical industry saw telehealth utilization drastically rise throughout the course of Covid-19 as healthcare adapted to the access challenges of social distancing. Telehealth solutions offer a way to not only increase physician efficiency by helping to streamline triage of less critical medical issues but also allow doctors the opportunity to provide services in some way without limitations based on geography. This could revolutionize access for populations in areas that will be increasingly affected by the physician shortage.
Attract More and Better Talent
Solutions that involve simply adapting the healthcare process or increase the efficiency of existing physicians really only deal with symptoms of the problem. The root cause of a shortage of trained doctors must be addressed in some way to keep up with the increasing demands of care. This makes employer branding absolutely critical for healthcare companies and practices. As the pool of trained physicians gets smaller, organizations would be wise to do anything possible to make themselves more attractive to the physicians that do exist.
This isn't necessarily a competitive problem for US medical companies, however. Positioning yourself as a desirable employer for trained physicians in your area is important to success, but the shortage of physicians isn't evenly applied throughout the US. Attracting the physicians you need from areas that are not experiencing a doctor shortage is an overall benefit to the entire medical field. Alternatively, while a physician shortage may be running rampant in the US, medical professionals are plentiful elsewhere in the world. In our increasingly borderless world, setting up your employer brand to attract talent from overseas can also be hugely beneficial.
The Physician Shortage Isn't Going Away Anytime Soon
The physician shortage in the US is a complex problem, made up of many layers of contributing cultural and social factors. Today, the very tip of the iceberg can be seen across the country, but over the next decade, the effects of the physician shortage will escalate severely. A problem with many causes doesn't simply have one solution, but there are many steps that can be taken to ensure a better future for the medical industry tomorrow and better access to the care that they need for the public.
Here at Lumina, we know that competing for the expert medical talent that your organization needs is more challenging than ever in today's world. That's why we've developed solutions to help empower your recruiting team to stand out and attract the physicians that you need on your team. We enable your recruiters to use video job postings to attract candidates and fill your open positions quickly. Compatibility with job boards like Health eCareers and HR systems like Taleo, Workday, and Breezy HR makes it simple for your recruiters to put out more engaging content and find more talent.
If you're ready to see what Lumina can do for you, sign up for your free trial today.