In March 2005, the Association of American Medical Colleges announced that America will face a shortage of between 85,000 and 200,000 physicians by 2020. The U.S. population is growing faster than the number of new physicians entering the workforce. How big the shortfall will be has been argued since last year, but most pundits expect there to be too few physicians—in total—to take care of the burgeoning population, especially the elderly.
If a shortage of physicians is to be anticipated, what effect might this have on hospitals and hospitalists?
Where Does the Number Come From?
The debate about the range of the projected shortfall of 85,000 to 200,000 physicians reflects several differing assumptions. All estimates are based on the ratio of physicians to the overall population. Different estimates are based on distinctive models for the necessary staffing of the medical enterprise. For example, prepaid medical groups that serve large populations of patients (e.g., Kaiser Permanente) have physician-per-capita ratios of up to 20% less than fee-for-service environments. A larger elderly population will likely demand more medical services per capita. So, the estimate of a shortfall depends on the model of medical care for 2020 anticipated to be predominant in 2020 and a calculation of usage rate per capita for services—again, especially among the elderly.
Work/life balance choices that recent medical school graduates make also add to the uncertainty of predictions concerning the relative size of the shortage in total and by specialty. Young men and women graduating today increasingly express a preference for reduced or more manageable hours of work per week, sometimes opting for shift work or other forms of more predictable workload. There is also an understanding that women physicians tend to work part-time in some stages of their career—especially when they are trying to balance the demands of starting and raising a young family. Many of their male spouses are making similar choices.
The Specialty Nature of the Shortfall
A relative shortfall in available physicians relates to the specialty choice of new residency graduates. From 1996 to 2002, for example, certain specialties experienced increases in the number of applicants to residency programs, such as anesthesiology, dermatology, and radiology; whereas, other specialties saw reduced demand for training slots, such as in family practice and general surgery. For example, U.S. medical school seniors filled 89% of the general surgery residency slots available in 1996, but only 75% of the available slots in 2002.
The relative number of physicians in certain geographies will also be affected by the attractiveness of that particular area of the country or practice location and style, such as rural versus urban or suburban.
Physicians’ retirement rates generate different estimates, too. Currently, 18% of physicians in the United States are older than 65—compared with 12.6% of the overall population. In certain states, the percentage of physicians older than 65 is substantially higher, in some cases more than 20%. Different analysts generate different expectations about how many physicians over age 65 will leave the workforce. The number of hours that doctors practice and their decisions about when they will retire, based on their personal financial circumstances, are quite varied. This makes calculations of the shortfall to be anticipated subject to a variety of interpretations
There is a debate also over the question of substitution. If there are too few physicians in the United States, will a shortfall in supply be made up by increasing numbers of foreign medical graduates or by other non-physician practitioners?
New foreign medical graduates may make up perhaps as many as 6,000 positions nationally. This will not make up for the shortfall of between 3,000 and 10,000 per year of additional physicians who need to graduate and enter the workforce.
Substitution by non-physician practitioners will mitigate some of the effects of the shortfall. We can anticipate that the use of nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, and health educators will increase in situations where they can substitute for lower intensity medical care—especially in primary care settings, outpatient environments, and as adjuncts to care delivered by proceduralists and surgeons of many types. This will make some difference in the overall expectation for reduced availability of physicians.
Given all of these inputs, all projections point to a shortage of physicians, but none of the analyses agree on the absolute size.
The Effects of the Shortage
In any event, the projected shortage will affect how hospitals support their various service lines and, thus, will impact on the work performed by hospitalists, intensivists, and other physicians who support that work in hospitals. Hospitals anticipate this effect at the intersection of the shortage with increasing demands for rapid throughput, thorough and safe care for patients, and accountability for clearly specified clinical outcomes. Hospitals are already worrying about how to staff neurosurgery, cardiology, and general surgery positions. Changes in how primary care is delivered will affect where patient referrals come from and hospitals’ relationship with their specialist physicians.
How Will a Shortage Affect Hospitalists?
Increasing demand for services: With fewer physicians choosing general or primary care practice, hospitalists will find increasing demand for their services as coverage for acute care. Fewer primary care physicians will be able to afford the luxury of inpatient practice and gravitate toward highly efficient outpatient office-based practice while referring acute care to their hospitalist colleagues and specialists to pick up the slack for specific procedures, hospital follow-up care and return on discharge.
Hospitalists will be responsible then for a larger population of inpatients, providing for comprehensive care management in coordinating the services for all the care needs of many different types of diagnoses.
Increasing span of influence: In addition, there will be increasing demand by procedure-oriented physicians for hospitalist coverage to improve their efficiency in providing acute specialty care. Some of this demand may spill into single-specialty outpatient and focused freestanding hospital environments. Hospitalists will be pulled to cover specialists, who find their efficiency and the volume of work required prohibits them from providing comprehensive inpatient care for complex patients. They will prefer to focus on procedural interventions. Orthopedic surgery, cardiac surgery, neurosurgery, and cardiology, in particular, are likely to be new clients for hospitalist services.
Increasing emphasis on multidisciplinary care: Given the demand for evidence-based outcomes, hospitalists will provide physician input into clinical care design for a greater variety of patients in an increasing span of clinical service lines. This will put a demand on hospitalists for skills related to teamwork, leadership, and management in group environments. It will also require hospitalists to become broadly knowledgeable about the skills and contributions of all other potential care providers.
The New Medical Staff
The looming physician shortage in the United States will significantly affect the demand for and the variety and scope of work that hospitalists perform. The number of medical specialties dependent on hospitalist services will broaden. And hospitals will turn to hospitalists as their primary medical staff partners, responsible for the majority of medical staff functions and responsibilities. TH
Mike Guthrie, MD, is executive in residence at the University of Colorado (Denver) School of Business, Program in Health Administration, and a faculty member of SHM’s Leadership Academy.