Medical schools: The biggest physician shortage will be for surgeons

AAMC revises down its shortage projections

The United States could face a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 physicians by 2025, according to a new report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

According to CQ HealthBeat, the estimate is lower than AAMC reported five years ago. In 2010, the organization predicted a shortfall of 130,600 physicians by 2025. According to the report, the revision is the result of a small increase in the number of physicians, as well as updated population projections from the U.S. Census.

For the report, researchers used 2013 as a baseline, noting that 767,100 physicians younger than age 75 were practicing. The researchers said that of those physicians, 26% were between ages 55 and 65 and 10% were between ages 65 and 75.

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Shortage details

Overall, the report found that while the number of physicians is expected to increase, it will not grow quickly enough to meet demand.

The researchers said that one-third or more of the physicians currently practicing could retire within 10 years. Further, they noted that the younger physicians replacing the older ones tend to work fewer hours. Meanwhile, the number of people over age 65 is expected to increase by 46% by 2025, according to AAMC Chief Health Care Officer Janis Orlowski.

According to the report, the greatest shortfall by percentage will be among surgeons, particularly among those specializing in diseases common among older people, such as cancer and chronic illnesses.

Overall, the number of specialists will fall short of demand by between 28,200 and 63,700 physicians by 2025. In addition, the report authors expect that the demand for primary care physicians will exceed supply by about 12,500 to 31,100.

Orlowski noted that the U.S. faces both an overall shortage of physicians and an uneven distribution of providers. "It is a nationwide shortage" that is "exacerbated by maldistribution," she said.

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AAMC recommendations

In response to the projected shortfall, AAMC has recommended:

  • Streamlining physicians' use of information technology;
  • Adopting innovations that make care delivery more effective; and
  • Adding 3,000 federally funded graduate medical education positions.

The group said the U.S. needs to act now to avoid a shortage over the next decade, as it takes five to 10 years to train a physician (Robeznieks, Modern Healthcare, 3/3 [subscription required]; Adams, CQ HealthBeat, 3/3; Bernstein, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 3/3). 

The takeaway: The latest estimate is lower than the one AAMC reported five years ago, but it still predicts a significant shortage across the physician workforce, especially among surgeons.


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