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June 29, 2020

U.S. facing a growing physician shortage and COVID-19 may be making it worse

Health care system to see increased demand as the American population shifts older and more doctors near retirement

Adult Health Physicians
U.S. physician shortage Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Some states have allowed medical students to graduate early to help ensure an adequate supply of physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States is expected to be down at least 54,100 physicians by 2033, creating increased demand on the health care system, according to a new report. The shortage could soar as high as 139,000. 

The analysis, published last week by the Association of American Medical Colleges, was conducted in 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic, which many health experts fear will exacerbate the physician shortage.

"This annual analysis continues to show that our country will face a significant shortage of physicians in the coming years," AAMC President and CEO Dr. David J. Skorton said.

"The gap between the country's increasing health care demands and the supply of doctors to adequately respond has become more evident as we continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge of having enough doctors to service our communities will get even worse as the nation's population continues to grow and age."

The projected shortages include between 21,400 and 55,200 primary care physicians and between 33,700 and 86,700 specialists, including those working in surgery, radiology and psychiatry.

The biggest drivers of the physician shortage are an aging population that continues to grow and a physician workforce that is also getting closer to retirement age.

The U.S. population under age 18 is projected to grow by 3.9% by 2033. The population age 65 and over – which requires more medical attention  is projected to grow by 45.1% over the same span. 

Another troubling projection: More than 40% of active physicians will be at least 65, the traditional retirement age, within the next decade.

Americans already have expressed concerns about finding a physicians, according to a public opinion poll conducted in September. At that point, 35% of respondents said they had trouble finding a doctor in the last couple years.

The physician shortage has only gotten worse during the pandemic, according to Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. Not only are hospitals seeing an influx of patients because of the coronavirus, but health care workers are contracting the virus and, at times, dying from it.

To help handle the demand, some states have brought doctors out of retirement and allowed medical students graduate early. Medical reserve corps, like the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corp., also have been called in.

"The pandemic has shown the importance of investing in a strong health care infrastructure," Skorton added. "To ensure access to care, one essential step Congress must take is to ensure an adequate physician workforce by ending the freeze on federal funding for graduate medical education that has been in place since 1997 that limits federal support for training new physicians."

The bipartisan Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2019 was introduced in Congress to provide increased Medicare support for an additional 3,000 new residency positions each year over the next five years.

"In addition, our partners in health care, especially nurse practitioners and physician assistants, also have critical roles to play in what must be a prolonged solution to increase access to care and ensure our nation is prepared to adequately respond to public health needs and emergencies in the future," he said.

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