Large Shortages in Primary, Specialty Physicians Seen by 2032

Kerry Dooley Young

April 25, 2019

There could be a shortage of 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032, in both primary and specialty care, with burnout potentially affecting retirement timing and a trend toward shorter working hours contributing to the wide range of estimates, a new report shows.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) on Tuesday released its latest outlook on the supply and demand for physicians, which was conducted by IHS Markit, a data analysis and market intelligence firm based in New York and London.

AAMC said in 2015 that it made a commitment to commission annual updates of national physician workforce projections. The 2019 report shows a dearth of primary care physicians by 2032, with a shortage of 21,100 to 55,200 seen in this field.

Among specialty care, the shortage is expected to be in the range of 24,800 to 65,800, including between 1900 and 12,100 medical specialists; between 14,300 and 23,400 surgical specialists, and between 20,600 and 39,100 other specialists such as pathologists, neurologists, radiologists, and psychiatrists, the report shows.

"The United States would need an additional 95,900 doctors immediately if healthcare use patterns were equalized across race, insurance coverage, and geographic location," the AAMC states in a news release.

Retirement, Burnout Major Factors

Physicians' decisions on when to retire will play a key role in determining the extent of the future shortage, AAMC said. Physicians between ages 55 and 64 make up 27% of the active workforce, with those older than age 65 accounting for another for 15% of it.

"Thus, over 40% of the physician workforce is at risk for retiring over the next decade," the AAMC report shows.

And, the toll of burnout on physicians could lead some to accelerate retirement plans, the report authors said, citing Medscape data. The 2018 Medscape National Physician Burnout and Depression Report found 42% of physician respondents reported burnout as a result of causes such as long work hours and excess bureaucratic tasks.

AAMC said it is fielding a physician survey this year to collect data about physician retirement patterns and physician work patterns. This information is intended to address questions of whether high levels of physician burnout may accelerate retirement plans or lead to reduced work hours.

Other issues that AAMC highlighted for further research include the effects of an expected increased supply of physician assistants (PAs) and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). It is also still unclear how an expected rise in the number of retail health clinics may affect demand for physicians, the report authors said.

The report noted the potential impact of "a trend toward physicians of all ages working fewer hours." It added that the decline in hours worked appears "particularly large when comparing recent hours-worked patterns of younger physicians relative to physicians of a similar age a decade ago."

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