Is There a Looming Physician Shortage?

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physician shortage

Is There a Looming Physician Shortage?

Key takeaways: 

  • Demand for physician services is expected to grow due to a growing and aging population.
  • Supply of physicians is expected to decrease because of an aging workforce and insufficient new physicians.
  • There will likely be a physician shortage, but the magnitude of it will vary based on specialties.

The United States has been facing physician shortages for many years, and many speculate that the deficit will reach critical levels in the near future. An aging physician workforce and a growing, aging population have been driving these projections, and COVID-19 accelerated this even further. 

Association of American Medical College’s The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections From 2019 to 2034 provides supply and demand projections for the profession. We have rounded up what you need to know from this report as we look toward the future of physician employment.

What could happen to demand for physician services?

AAMC reports that many factors are likely to increase demand for physicians in the immediate future and beyond. One factor that will greatly affect this demand is the growing and aging population. From 2019 to 2034, the U.S. population is expected to grow from 328.2 million to 363.0 million, an increase of 10.6%.

The population under 18 is projected to grow by 5.6%, which is low growth for this demographic and may lead to decreased demand for pediatric specialties. In contrast, the population over age 65 is projected to grow by 42.4%, and the population over 75 is expected to grow by 74.0%. This will lead to a high demand for physician specialties that care for older adults.

With a national push to improve healthcare for underserved populations, demand is likely to go up based on projections within the report. COVID-19 led to increased awareness of health and access disparities for minority, rural and uninsured populations. According to the AAMC, demand would rise by about 102,400 (13%) to 180,400 (22%) physicians if government interventions promote underserved populations to utilize healthcare in the same ways as those with fewer access barriers. This projected demand will not be fully realized, but we can expect some increased need from this area.

According to AAMC, the effects of COVID-19 will likely be felt for many years, especially in physician demand. As patients continue to deal with the effects of long-COVID, the need for more frequent doctor visits or specialized care will increase the need for physicians. It will take many years to fully understand the effects the pandemic will have on the demand for healthcare, but we will likely see early indications of what is to come soon. 

What could happen to the supply of physicians?

The supply of physicians is likely to decrease due to a substantial number of doctors nearing retirement and an insufficient number of young physicians entering the workforce, based on this report. More than 40% of current physicians will be 65 or older within the next decade. 

Retirement patterns are shifting in large part because of burnout, indicating that physicians are more likely to accelerate retirement than delay. On the other hand, a rising sense of uncertainty in financial futures may encourage doctors to delay their retirement. 

More doctors will be entering the workforce than in years past. There will be an increase of 200 graduate medical education slots per year from 2023 to 2027 because of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. This will be beneficial to those planning to enter the physician workforce but will not replace the entirety of the projected retiring physicians.

So, will there be a physician shortage?

Based on these projections, there is likely to be an overall shortage of physicians. The magnitude of this shortage has yet to be determined, but AAMC projects it to be between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.

It is important to consider that the necessary supply and demand will vary depending on specialty. Primary care is expected to see a shortage between 17,800 and 48,000 by 2034. Surgical specialties will see a deficit of 15,800 to 30,200, medical specialties from 3,800 to 13,400, and other specialties from 10,300 to 35,600.

Where do we go from here? 

As the U.S.’s health care needs change, it is important to adapt and do so now. Shortages already exist and are only getting worse. American Medical Association President Gerald E. Harmon, MD recently shared his perspective on the topic.

“Because it can take up to a decade to properly educate and train a physician, we need to take action now to ensure we have enough physicians to meet the needs of tomorrow,” Harmon said. “The health of our nation depends on it.”

We at Panacea Financial recognize this ever-present issue and are committed to addressing it through awareness, individualized financial support and a foundation that assists young physicians-in-training. Let’s work together to support those who follow behind us as they serve patients long after us.

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