The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how hard it can be to find a doctor when you need one. However, what many people don’t realize is that the physician shortage in the U.S. started long before the pandemic. Experts predict that this trend will continue well into the future.
A report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2020 states that we may see a shortage of over 120,000 physicians by 2034. As demand increases and supply dwindles, access to primary healthcare will become increasingly out of reach for many people. This in turn will put strain on emergency departments and increase healthcare costs.
The Harsh Reality of Doctor Shortage
The major problem with the doctor shortage is that it limits access to primary health care for many people. Primary health care providers are typically the first point of contact for a patient entering the healthcare system, and the care and guidance they provide can prevent non-urgent health issues from becoming larger problems.
When primary healthcare is not available or delayed, patients may turn to emergency rooms, which can take up time and space from those who actually have urgent issues. Even worse, patients may ignore health issues until their health deteriorates to a point where it is difficult or even impossible to rectify.
Thus, less doctors are in charge of more patients than usual. To err is human, and in high-stress situations that are often found in hospital settings, it’s easy for doctors to make mistakes and possibly misdiagnose or other types of malpractice.
Causes of the Physicians Shortage
People are no longer asking, “Is there a doctor shortage?”, but rather, “Why is the shortage happening?” There are many factors that have contributed to the nursing and physician shortage in the United States.
One of the main contributors is the difficulty in becoming a physician. Medical school can be incredibly expensive, not to mention a lengthy process. It takes approximately 10 years to achieve a bachelor’s degree and complete medical school and residency training. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average medical school graduate owes $241,600 in total student loan debt.
The aging American population is another factor. The United States Census Bureau predicts that by 2034, elderly people will outnumber children for the first time in the history of the U.S. Older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses and injuries, and as a result they require more healthcare services than younger people. This is already putting pressure on the healthcare system.
As the demand for doctors increases dramatically, many healthcare professionals are feeling the strain. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a great deal of burnout, and many physicians left the profession altogether, either to pursue other careers or retire. In addition, the current physician workforce is also aging, meaning more doctors are expected to retire in the coming years.
How Hospitals are Responding to the Issue of a Lack of Doctors
The primary care physician shortage has put a huge amount of pressure on hospitals. With less access to primary care, more people end up in emergency rooms or require the services of specialists. Many hospitals are now taking steps to address this additional pressure.
While the most obvious step may be to hire more healthcare professionals, the doctor shortage means that there are fewer candidates to choose from. Many hospitals are now hiring temporary doctors to help alleviate the workload of their permanent staff. In addition, some hospitals are looking to technology such as telemedicine to address patient needs.
What Can Be Done to Solve this Problem or Reduce its Effects?
What are the solutions to the doctor shortage? The answer is complicated and involves multi-faceted approaches. Many agencies including the government, medical schools and healthcare providers will all have to contribute to effecting change. These are just a few potential solutions to the problem:
- Locum tenens. One immediate solution is to employ locum tenens to meet staffing needs. Locum tenens can fill temporary vacancies and help alleviate the workload of facilities with high patient loads. This has the dual benefit of addressing patient needs and alleviating burnout for permanent staff members.
- Funding. Although the federal government has recently made efforts to provide funding for medical education and increase residency slots, it barely scratches the surface of what is needed. Residency positions funded by Medicare have been capped since the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. More funding is needed to support academic programs and increase residency slots.
- Increased interest in the profession. In order to meet the increased demand for physicians, there needs to be sufficient supply. One of the major deterrents for young people who might want to enter the industry is costs. Increased funding will make the profession more accessible, and therefore more appealing to many people. Student loan forgiveness can also help boost interest in healthcare as a career.
- Increased interest in areas that are lacking. While medical school classes are increasing in size, there is an unequal distribution of what and where physicians practice. Efforts should be made to increase interest in practicing primary care, as this is the first line of defense in healthcare. In addition, government agencies, hospitals and healthcare facilities should provide incentives for doctors to practice in rural and underserved areas.
- Physician extenders. Physician assistants can greatly reduce the workload of doctors by providing patient care and handling additional tasks that may otherwise be hindering workflow. This allows doctors to attend to more patients and provide better quality care. Physician assistants can help with everything from screening to paperwork, diagnoses and assisting with surgery.
How Technology Can Help Overcome Healthcare Challenges
One of the major solutions to the doctor shortage is the use of technology in healthcare. This can come in many forms including electronic referrals, telehealth, and virtual care including video, phone calls and emails for patient monitoring. Physicians can also empower patients to monitor their own health via apps and wearable devices.
Telemedicine and virtual care allows doctors to expand their reach and provide care to patients who may be in remote areas or hindered by mobility issues or lack of transportation options. In addition, it can save time for both doctors and patients by providing a convenient way to communicate any time and in any location.
The physician shortage in America has been an issue for many years now and it’s not going away anytime soon. That being said, there are solutions to help alleviate the problem now and in the future. Temporary staffing, increased funding, and the usage of technology in healthcare can improve patient care and help reduce the disparity between demand and supply.