If you’ve called to book an appointment with your doctor recently, you may have noticed there was a longer waiting period than usual. The issue, which has only been further exacerbated by the pandemic, is a product of a nationwide physician shortage. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. faces a projected shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. 

Specific AAMC projections by 2034 include shortages of:

  • Between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians.
  • Between 21,000 and 77,100 non-primary care physicians.

This includes shortages of:

  • Between 15,800 and 30,200 for surgical specialties.
  • Between 3,800 and 13,400 for medical specialties.
  • Between 10,300 and 35,600 for other specialties.

The nationwide physician shortage will have far-reaching implications, impeding access to care – particularly in underserved communities – and hindering overall community health. The deficiency will also put additional strain on emergency departments, which have shouldered the burned of pandemic-related cases over the past few years. 

As people face obstacles in accessing care, they will increasingly turn to hospitals and emergency departments out of necessity. This will drive up healthcare costs and lead to poorer patient outcomes, as patients may delay addressing a problem until it has worsened and requires emergency care. 

What’s Causing the Physician Shortage?

The factors contributing to the shortage are multi-faceted and complex. And it all begins at the start of a person’s journey to become a physician. Think about it: the cost, time, and qualifications needed to receive medical training are incredibly restraining. So, as the demand for physicians increases, the supply of available physicians in the labor market will remain relatively fixed. After all, there are only so many medical programs in America, and each has a limited number of spots available for prospective students and trainees. 

Another piece of the shortage equation lies in our country’s aging population. According to TIME, “By 2035, there will be more seniors aged 65 or older than children aged 17 or younger—the first time this demographic imbalance has occurred in the nation’s history. This is significant because older people see a physician at three or four times the rate of younger people and account for a highly disproportionate number of surgeries, diagnostic tests, and other medical procedures.”

This rising demand for medical care for older patients is occurring at a time when a large proportion of physicians themselves are reaching retirement age – further magnifying the issue at hand. What’s more, a Medscape survey showed one-fourth of physicians in the U.S. are considering early retirement due to the pandemic. This is largely due to a spike in burnout rates caused by the physical and emotional toll of delivering care during the height of COVID-19. 

All of these elements combined are driving the physician shortage – a crisis that’s as prevalent today as it will be in the years to come. There are several potential ways to combat the scarcity of available physicians, with a flexible staffing model being a crucial component of ensuring continuity of care and a strong patient experience. 

Solutions for Overcoming the Physician Shortage

Due to the complexity of the physician shortage, there’s no single solution that’ll magically eradicate the issue. However, there are efforts we can begin implementing today to help tackle the ongoing crisis. 

1. Debt Relief

Part of the conversation should be centered around student loan forgiveness. There are several states and hospital systems that have been offering incentive programs as a way to attract new talent and help them pay off their loans. Reducing the overall cost burden of medical school at the federal level would also be an effective way to begin resolving the shortage. Debt relief is particularly crucial for lower-paying specialties, like primary care, that must continue driving interest to ensure gaps don’t grow larger. 

2. Decrease Administrative Burden

It’s no secret that the healthcare space requires copious amounts of paperwork and data entry. From the lens of optimizing a physician’s time (reducing burnout and ensuring their focus is on patient care), healthcare systems should use automation where applicable and delegate administrative tasks to other professionals. 

3. Embrace Technology

Telehealth has been driven into the mainstream as a result of the pandemic. By harnessing telemedicine, facilities can broaden their reach from both a patient and physician perspective. It removes transportation-related challenges and allows organizations to access specialists (where appropriate) to address patient needs in a convenient and more cost-efficient way. 

4. Expand Your Team

Having a flexible and agile staffing solution in place allows your facility to quickly adapt to patient fluctuations, as well as bridge labor gaps. With a robust pipeline of talent teed up, it’ll free up internal resources and preserve the quality of care delivered. 

The patient experience is not only an important facet of driving positive outcomes, but it can directly impact your facility’s reputation from a patient retention and referral standpoint. Proactive planning will always be the most effective way to combat an understaffed practice.

While the physician shortage is a complex problem, it isn’t unresolvable. What’s more, there are ways your healthcare organization can strategically allocate resources to maintain a competitive presence in the labor market and reduce physician turnover.

At Polaris Placement, we’re helping hospitals and healthcare organizations drive revenue and improve patient outcomes through flexible healthcare staffing solutions. At a time when healthcare workers are needed now more than ever, our team of recruitment experts can help your facility implement an innovative, flexible recruitment strategy. To learn more, contact the Polaris team today.