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.