Shortage of Doctors Will Strain Health Care System

In the 1990s, the American Medical Association (AMA) predicted that there would be a surplus of 165,000 doctors by the year 2000. Therefore, medical schools began to voluntarily restrict the number of new medical students who entered their programs. However, the surplus of doctors never occurred. Many point to the AMA’s flawed prediction as one of the main reasons why many agencies are predicting a severe shortage of doctors by the year 2020.

The Health Resources and Services Administration forecasts a shortage of more than 65,000 physicians by 2020, and the American Academy of Family Physicians projects a shortage of 149,000 doctors by 2025. For the first time since 1930, the ratio of physicians to the population is beginning to decline.

There are many contributing factors to the impending doctor shortage:

•    The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the U.S. population will grow from about 300 million people to 350 million people by 2025.

•    Baby boomers are aging. The number of Americans who are at least 65 years old will double between 2000 and 2030.

•    Medicare reimbursement is not favorable for primary care physicians, as compared to specialists. Over the course of their career, primary care physicians will typically make at least $3 million less than a specialist. This diminishes the number of medical students who choose primary care as their focus.

•    The Association of American Medical Colleges states that the number of medical students going into family medicine declined by more than 25 percent between 2002 and 2007.

•    Since 1997, the number of medical students going into primary care has declined about 52 percent.

A doctor shortage would further strain the healthcare system.With the new health care legislation, 30 million new people have been added to a crowded health care system. One of the major effects of not having enough doctors means that people may not have timely access to a physician, which means a delay in diagnoses, which means more money spent out of pocket in the long run.

Many experts are predicting that physician assistants and nurse practitioners will continue to play a bigger role in providing more of the care they can capably handle. This is not only less expensive than having a doctor provide the care, it lessens the workload of physicians and allows them to focus on acute care.

Some naysayers to the impending doctor shortage believe more doctors per capita is not necessarily a better thing. They say organization of care and better health care decisions can make up for any shortage. Everyone agrees that with less doctors, the health care system needs to mobilize and disseminate the workforce in order for the system to function effectively.

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