The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) published a report in June 2020 that revealed a physician shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 in both primary and specialty care by 2033. This report underscores the widening chasm between patient and healthcare requirements, and the number of physicians needed to build a bridge across that chasm.
The study, entitled The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2018-2033, was developed prior to the 2020 pandemic which is likely to impact these figures over the long and the short term. How COVID-19 is set to hit physician numbers or healthcare has yet to be determined, but there are concerns that it will further reduce the number of physicians able to provide the right levels of healthcare in the coming years.
Why is there a physician shortage?
Two of the primary reasons cited in the AAMC report for the physician shortage are: an aging population and aging physicians. The retirement era is hitting both sides of the physician shortage equation and is set to have a serious impact on healthcare if a solution isn’t put in place very soon.
And, as mentioned earlier, the pandemic is sending its own ripple of repercussions through the market. In an article published in Physician Sense in May 2021, research by Merrit Hawkins found that physician jobs had actually decreased during the pandemic with recruiting dropping by 30%, demand for physicians dropping overall, and that opportunities significantly decreased. This meant that physicians, working long hours and under extraordinarily difficult conditions, faced wage cuts and job uncertainty at a time when their roles were most critical. The same report, however, highlighted that this shift in demand was very likely going to reverse back to the conditions outlined in the AAMC study, pointing out that physicians are ‘indispensable caregivers’ and that renewed demand would see a return to the physician shortages predicted in 2018.
The market, impacted by the financial repercussions of the pandemic, flipped from a seller’s market to a buyer’s one in just 60 days in 2020. Today, that flip has happened again with physicians once again in high demand as the healthcare sector recovers from the hit of COVID-19.
However, another challenge impacting on the physician shortage is funding. It’s expensive to train as a physician. It’s costly to go to medical school. And funding opportunities are limited and complex. This makes it difficult for potential physicians to enter the market and then, once they’ve completed training, they often experience severe burnout and depression as a result of the long hours and big bills they have to pay. This loop has to be cut to protect the future of healthcare and, most importantly, physicians themselves.
How to solve physician shortage
There are several initiatives and programs in place that have been designed to address the physician shortage and minimize the risks of the extraordinary 139,000 physician shortfall predicted for 2033.
As the Merritt Hawkins report pointed out – physicians are critical resources. Healthcare is an essential resource and cannot thrive without the experience, leadership and expertise of the physician. This means that there have to be changes in how healthcare and education institutions approach the physician shortage and long-term physician care.
The first is to put physician well being at the forefront of training, opportunity and career. The Merritt Hawkins report found that many physicians have opted out of patient care or moved into entirely new careers due to the stresses of their roles, and the uncertainty introduced by COVID-19. To ensure that physicians are given the right care and support, there has to be a focused effort on providing them with the tools and resources they need to do their jobs more efficiently and with less admin and stress. The latter two points were highlighted in the 2021 Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report which revealed that admin and bureaucratic tasks were the number one cause of burnout at 58%, with spending too long at work (37%), lack of control and autonomy (28%), and stress from social distancing and COVID-19 issues (16%) contributing to the physician burden.
Addressing the physician shortage
There’s plenty of research and insight into the why of the physician shortage, but it’s a challenging landscape when it comes to resolving these problems. It’s important to address the obstacles that keep people in the role of physician, to improve quality of life for physicians and to minimize burnout.
In a paper published in the Mercatus Special Edition Policy Brief entitled Resolving Roadblocks to Activating Additional Physicians, the authors identify several areas that could do with a revamp and support the physician today. They recommend that the challenges presented by insurance companies and the licensing process be streamlined and resolved, making it easier for physicians to do their jobs while reducing the strain on the system.
Finally, it’s important to focus on providing improved access to funding for medical training and to increase the number of students in classes and training programs. This will not only make it easier for people to enter the field, but it will increase volumes.
Where can technology come in?
Technology can’t clone physicians to make up for the dwindling numbers and increased demand, but it can provide support to physicians and patients in times of need. From telemedicine in the field to advanced workflow and administrative solutions in the healthcare practice, technology has the potential to shift unnecessary pressures off the physician while improving patient care.
Telemedicine has long been considered a solid solution to physician shortage problems, particularly in countries that have a severely limited supply. The BMJ Public Health Emergency Collection of papers published one entitled “Telemedicine, the current COVID-19 pandemic and the future: a narrative review and perspectives moving forward in the USA,” pulling together multiple articles and bodies of search around the topic into one solid body of research. It found that telemedicine has the potential to not only help physicians and overstretched healthcare facilities, but to support healthcare in preparing for future pandemics and shortages.
Then there’s artificial intelligence (AI) that’s evolved from hype and postulation to a trusted resource that can potentially help physicians manage workloads and manual administration. Some solutions are designed to automate workflows, streamline information capture, and manage tedious admin tasks. Others, more advanced, are designed to ease the pressure on physicians as they undertake vast volumes of work at speed on a daily basis. One such solution is Aidoc, a leading AI platform for the radiology sector, that has long been providing physicians with support that they need to manage extraordinary workloads. Aidoc provides seamless workflow integration and an intuitive user experience that provides the radiologist with a third pair of hands, another pair of eyes that never sleep. With the platform in place, radiologists are assured of a tool that can help them in prioritizing acute cases, empowering them to maintain their quality while increasing efficiency and improving their work-life balance.
These technologies and solutions are constantly evolving, constantly adapting to changing physician needs, and have the potential to fundamentally change the pressures they endure. Blending these technologies with improved funding, wellness, access, training and support will not only reduce the risk of the physician shortage, but improve healthcare overall.