According to new data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the nationwide primary care physician shortage could reach as high as 55,200 by 2032. If the provider shortage is not addressed, patients could experience longer wait times when scheduling future appointments, they may be unable to see their preferred providers, and they could experience long wait times on the day of their appointment. The outlook is dire, but what is causing the shortage?
Primary care providers are spending precious time managing patients’ medical records using electronic health record systems and fighting with insurers to authorize services for a patient or to appeal an adverse benefit determination. Time spent on these tasks is uncompensated. Aimed Alliance has published research on this issue that discusses these administrative and how they are contributing to provider burnout.
In comparison to primary care physicians, specialists overall are making roughly 30 percent more per year. However, there is a shortage of specialists that eclipses the shortage of primary care physicians, which compounds the overall issue. While the primary care shortage could grow as high as 55,200 by 2032, the shortage of specialists could reach 65,800. Based on these figures, there are simply not enough people choosing to enter the medical field altogether.
The education pipeline plays a role, as the costs associated with completing medical school have continued to rise. On average, new graduates leave medical school with around $192,000 of student debt, which is much higher than most other graduates, who average $20,000-$25,000 in student debt after graduation. Concerningly, fewer and fewer physicians are self-employed. This is caused by a greater share of providers who have chosen employment with a hospital or health system. It’s possible that these two trends are correlated, as self-employed physicians have a more difficult time repaying their debt because private practice is rife with uncertainty and larger health systems can provide attractive benefits packages that include student debt relief.
In addition to this, the aging population continues to increase demand for primary care providers. The overall U.S. population is estimated to increase by 10% by 2032, but the proportion of those individuals who will be over age 65 will increase by 48%. As the population ages, additional providers will retire, placing additional strain on the supply of doctors. According to AAMC, it takes between 7 and 15 years for a physician to complete their training, which means that the impacts from any efforts to address this issue will be delayed by several years.
AAMC is hopeful that the bipartisan Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2019 will help address this issue by supporting 3,000 additional residency positions over the next 5 years. But will it be enough?