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We Still Need to Prepare For a Physician Shortage

April 27, 2015

In a young physician’s life, few days are more momentous than Match Day, when soon-to-be medical school graduates find out where they will complete their residency training. 

Match Day always brings back memories. In 1995, I waited with intense anticipation at George Washington University to learn I matched at UCSF in primary care internal medicine. Two decades later, as an advocate for the missions of academic medicine and for our patients, a different question preoccupies me on Match Day: Are we training enough doctors for our communities—the right number, specialty mix, and geographic distribution?

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has a keen interest in the supply of doctors for the nation’s health care system. It’s not just because we train doctors. It's because we treat patients—an increasingly aging, growing number of patients who need all kinds of specialists.

This past winter, the AAMC commissioned the Life Science division of IHS Inc., a global information company, to update our 2010 physician workforce shortage estimates—using more recent data, better models, and new scenarios that reflect significant health care changes since 2010 that have the potential—only time will tell—to change supply and demand.

This national comprehensive study found that by 2025, our country will face a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 physicians––with significant shortages in many specialties. 

These new projections were formulated to address multiple scenarios: shifts in physicians’ hours and years they are expected to work; the contributions of nurse practitioners and physician assistants and alternative delivery sites like retail clinics; a sharp drop in the uninsured; and payers increasingly linking reimbursement to quality and outcomes. The big surprise with these data is that in all of these scenarios, there is a shortage of doctors.

Talk to anyone in health care and you will find a strong opinion about the workforce of the future and how health care will look in the next decade. But most will agree on one thing: Our nation’s health care system is changing rapidly and in ways that are difficult to measure.

On a day-to-day level, the physician shortage will mean that more and more people are going to have to wait longer for appointments, which can lead to delays in diagnosis and treatment and, therefore, poorer health outcomes.

Fixing the doctor shortage and avoiding these negative patient outcomes require a multi-pronged approach that includes innovations like team-based care and better use of emerging technologies to make care more effective and efficient, along with additional federal support to train 3,000 more doctors each year.   

The bottom line is this: The doctor shortage is real and it’s significant, and it takes at least seven years to train a doctor. We must act now—not 10 years from now—if we are going to avoid shortages and the risks they pose to patients in the next decade.




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About the Author

Atul Grover, MD, PhD AAMC Executive Vice President

Atul Grover, MD, PhD
AAMC Executive Vice President

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For More Information

Peters Willson
Sr. Specialist, Policy and Constituency Issues
Telephone: 202-862-6029