4 Findings that Illustrate the Physician Shortage Problem

The Association of American Medical Colleges this week released new data suggesting the total US physician shortage could reach between 46,000 and 90,000 by the year 2025.

The Association of American Medical Colleges this week released new data suggesting the total US physician shortage could reach between 46,000 and 90,000 by the year 2025.

The conclusion is based on a variety of criteria, including demographic trends, changes in the way care is delivered, and expected changes in payment methods. The study was conducted for the AAMC by IHS Inc.’s Life Science Division.

“The doctor shortage is real—it’s significant—and it’s particularly serious for the kind of medical care that our aging population is going to need,” said Darrell G. Kirch, MD, the president and CEO of AAMC.

The new report offers a rebuttal to those who doubt the claims of a looming shortfall. A panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine last year wrote that they could not find “credible evidence” of a pending shortfall.

However, AAMC’s report shows the nation almost certainly faces significant shortages of physicians in the coming decades, with primary care and surgical specialists topping the shortage list. The AAMC argues medical schools will need to train at least 3,000 additional doctors per year to meet the growing demand.

“The trends from these data are clear—the physician shortage will grow over the next 10 years under every likely scenario,” Kirch said. “Because training a doctor takes between five and 10 years, we must act now, in 2015, if we are going to avoid serious physician shortages in 2025.”

Robert Wergin, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, praised the AAMC report as a valuable contribution to the shortage conversation.

“It highlights the national need for a comprehensive physician workforce plan that ensures Americans have access to the right care at the right time from the right health professional,” he said, in a prepared statement.

Wergin said the nation’s medical schools can handle the needed increase in medical students, but he said the problem won’t be solved without more residency training positions.

Among the key findings from the AAMC report:

Primary care tops the list, but specialists are also in demand. The US will have a shortfall of at least 12,500 primary care doctors by 2025, though the high-end projections suggest a possible shortfall of up to 31,100. And while primary care has the highest demand of any single focus area, the shortfall for all non-primary care specialties will be 28,200-63,700, according to the study.

Supply is increasing, but not fast enough. The report finds the supply of physicians will grow by about 9% from 2013 to 2025. However, if that happens, it would mean just 66,700 new physicians. Even the report’s best case scenario only calls for physician supply to increase by 94,600. Meanwhile, demand will grow by somewhere between 86,700 and 133,200 over that same time span.

The outlook has improved. Though the shortage is still a major force to be reckoned with, AAMC’s 2010 study pegged the 2025 shortfall at 130,600. In the newest report, that figure was revised downward to between 46,100 and 90,400. The report notes a few reasons for the change. First, the US Census Bureau revised downward its population growth estimates. The number of physicians completing medical school has also increased, from 27,000 per year 5 years ago to 29,000 per year.

The Affordable Care Act is accelerating the shortage. The report estimates that demand will grow by about 2% by 2025 if the Affordable Care Act results in 26 million previously uninsured people getting health insurance. That’s the figure calculated by the Congressional Budget Office. In this category, surgical demand is expected to increase the most, up 3.2%. Primary care demand will increase 2% as a result of the law, the study found.

The entire 59-page study can be read here.