Forecasted Physician Shortfall

In April, the Association of American Medical Colleges released a report suggestive of an oncoming physician shortfall in the United States in The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2017 to 2032. According to data from the study, the U.S. could face a shortage of nearly 122,000 physicians by 2031, as the demand for doctors increases faster than supply. Projected shortfall estimates range from 47,000 to 122,000 physicians however, that number could be even higher.

As the national population continues to grow and age, the need for a larger number of doctors available to meet the rising demand increases. While the industry continues to address and reduce population health factors such as smoking, heart disease, and obesity, it also extends American life expectancy, thereby creating an increased demand for doctors. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the nation’s population to grow by more than 10% by the year 2032, with the number of people over the age of 65 increasing by nearly 50%.

An aging population not only demands more healthcare opportunities, but it also reduces the amount of practicing physicians. Currently, one-third of all doctors will reach the age of 65 or older within the next decade, making physician retirement one of the greatest potential causes of the projected shortfall. Additionally, prevention efforts and longer life expectancy are expected to decrease demand for some specialties, such as endocrinology, while increasing the need for others, like geriatric medicine.

While rural and underserved areas may experience the forecasted shortage most acutely, the demand for doctors will be felt across the nation. To help address this problem, the United States would need an additional 95,900 physicians immediately if health care use patterns were to be equalized across race, insurance coverage and geographic location. The report’s estimated number of lacking physicians may need to increase to account for these needs.

The total projected shortage persists under multiple studied scenarios including: a moderate increase in the use of advanced practice nurses (APRNs) and physician assistants (Pas), greater use of alternate settings such as retail clinics, and delayed physician retirement. Thus, the magnitude of the forecasted shortage will necessitate more than a single solution. Addressing the issue will require a multifaceted approach focused on innovation in healthcare delivery methods, optimal use of technology, efficient use of all healthcare professionals, and increased federal funding.

Seeing as physician training can last up to a decade, the problem should be addressed as soon as possible. Currently, the AAMC and 70 healthcare stakeholders are backing legislation that would add 15,000 Medicare-supported residency positions to the market between 2021 and 2025. In the latest press release, AAMC President and CEO, Dr. Darrell G. Kirch stresses the need for immediate action: “Because it takes seven to 15 years to train a doctor, we urge Congress to remove the freeze on federal funding for residency training that has been in place for over two decades without delay.”

The study is an update to last year’s report, incorporating the latest data evidence to present the most accurate estimates and solutions based on new healthcare modeling. As new data becomes available, the AAMC pledges to update the study annually and ensure the most precise projections are being addressed.