According to new data out of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), physician shortages could reach 139,000 by the year 2033. The projected shortages include up to 55,200 too few primary care providers and up to 28,700 too few surgical specialists by 2033. Non-primary care specialists are thought to be particularly undersupplied in the next decade or so, with their shortage in 2033 projected to be between 33,700 and 86,700.
What is underlying this notion that we will soon have far too few physicians to meet our healthcare needs?
- More people will soon need care. One major challenge that is anticipated for the healthcare system is the growing population of older people who will increasingly need access to medical care. With the population of Americans who are above the age of 65 increasing by more than 45% between 2018 and 2033, there will significantly more need for healthcare in coming years.
- A large population of physicians are set to retire. A growing elderly population does not only mean there will be more patients, but it also means there will be more doctors becoming older and no longer being able to practice medicine. By 2033, there will be huge numbers of physicians retiring and ceasing to offer their medical services.
- The pandemic may have affected projections. The new projected shortages represent an increase compared to what was predicted just last year, suggesting that perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating an already problematic ratio of supply to demand in healthcare. Whether the projections assume growing medical needs or a shrinking supply of physicians – due perhaps to reduced motivation to pursue careers in medicine – is unclear.
- Attitudes about practicing medicine are changing. Even before COVID-19, it was widely recognized that practicing medicine has become much different over the past few decades and that many physicians struggle with burnout. These new trends may have changed incentives for people considering a career in medicine and may lead to fewer people practicing medicine. Even if medical schools stay packed with students, it may be the case that more medical school graduates ultimately end up in careers where they do not practice clinical medicine if other types of jobs have more to offer them.
Takeaway: It is generally agreed that we will soon have far too few doctors in our healthcare system, though there is no simple answer to why these shortages will occur. As more data are collected that can help us understand changing medical needs and changing incentives for pursuing physician careers, we will be better equipped to tackle the potential shortages.