100K doctors short? Report says the physician shortage may get much worse

'The nation must begin to train more doctors now,' says industry leader

The United States could face a shortfall of nearly 100,000 physicians in 10 years, driven by population growth and physician retirements.

A report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts a shortage of between 61,700 to 94,700 physicians by 2025. The projection is similar—although higher—than last year's, when AAMC estimated a shortage of between 46,100 and 90,400 physicians by 2026. The differences, AAMC says, "largely reflect the use of more recent data and improvements to methods."

The 10 states facing the biggest provider shortages

For 2016, AAMC estimates that there is a shortage of between 24,400 and 32,900 physicians.

Report details

Researchers based the latest report on supply and demand data, project models, medical school graduate data, and the number of physicians' assistants.

Specifically, the study predicts a shortage by 2025 of:

  • Between 14,900 and 35,600 primary care physicians; and
  • Between 37,400 and 60,300 non-primary care specialists.

"These updated projections confirm that the physician shortage is real, it's significant, and the nation must begin to train more doctors now if patients are going to be able to receive the care they need when they need it in the near future," says Darrell Kirch, AAMC 's president and CEO.

Is the physician shortage a real concern? Depends where you live.

What's driving the shortage

The report links the projected shortage to increased demand for and a diminished supply of physicians. The U.S. population is expected to grow to 346 million people in 2025, up from 319 million in 2014. And the number of people older than 64 is expected to grow by 41 percent, increasing demand for medical services further.

"Because seniors have much higher per capita consumption of health care than younger populations," the report reads, "the percentage growth in demand for services used by seniors is projected to be much higher than the percentage growth in demand for pediatric services."

As patients age, so too does the population of doctors. More than one-third of physicians will be older than 65 in the coming decade, and the report predicts that physician retirements will be the main contributor to the provider shortage.

Increased access to care

According to the report, the Affordable Care Act –through increasing demand by insuring more Americans—contributes about 1.2 percent of the projected shortage.

The report also projects that if medically underserved populations had the same access to care as others, the shortage would only become starker: In 2014, the U.S. health care system would have needed up to 96,200 extra physicians, AAMC says.

"When you consider all the people who do not utilize health care—despite their need—because of financial, cultural, social or geographic barriers, the physician shortage is actually much bigger," Kirch says (Kuhrt, FiercePracticeManagement, 4/6; Rappleye, Becker's Hospital Review, 4/5; McIntire, Morning Consult, 4/5).

Are you ready for the physician shortage?

Randy Gott, SVP, Advisory Board Consulting and Management

I was giving a presentation around medical staff development at a recent Advisory Board conference, and the subject turned to the looming physician shortage in the United States. An audience member raised a hand to say he had heard that this shortage is unfounded—and if we just rethink the way care is delivered, we can actually see a physician surplus in the future.

It's certainly a possibility that the threat of a nationwide physician shortage might not come to pass, since innovations in technology and staffing will likely improve productivity enough so that doctors will be able see more patients. But it got me thinking—while productivity improvements might solve the shortage for big cities with ample resources, what about the non-metropolitan areas where I often work?

In many of those communities, there's already a serious shortage of physicians. And it just doesn't seem to be getting any better.

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