The doctor shortage in North America – just how bad is it?
If you have ever been in an emergency department with a non-life threatening condition, or have ever been on a waitlist for routine surgery, you are likely acutely aware of the fact that there is a shortage of doctors in North America. Just how serious the problem is though, you might not realize.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates that, in the United States alone, there will be a shortage of 130,000 doctors by 2025, and according to an infographic from the Healthcare staffing company Soliant Health (found at: http://blog.soliant.com/healthcare-news/the-doctor-shortage/), a 3% increase in primary care physicians (which is the equivalent of 52,000 new doctors) is required by 2025, just to account for the growing and aging population, and the fact that more people will soon have access to medical insurance.
This latter point is especially interesting: with the introduction of Obamacare in the US, 32 million Americans that were previously uninsured will become covered in 2014, resulting in an immense added pressure on the national health care system. In 2025, it is estimated that there will be an additional 100 million annual visits to doctor’s offices and clinics compared to now.
Of course, this is not the whole story. When the population is aging, so are doctors. Within the next decade, almost one third of all American doctors will retire, with 250,000 doctors scheduled to retire by 2020 already. At the same time, every year there are approximately 17,000 new medical graduates (as of 2011), and whilst 7000 additional medical students now graduate every year due to an increased number of medical schools in the United States, there has been no increase in Medicaid-sponsored residency positions, resulting in a bottle neck of medical students who are unable to complete residency training. Particularly, there is a shortage of primary care physicians, and while this is partly because of the rapidly growing demand of these doctors, it is also in part due to many physicians choosing to work in more “glamorous” specializations, which are associated with more money and prestige.
This problem is not just limited to the United States; Canada also faces a growing and aging population, as well as reduced rates of foreign-trained physicians able to practice in the country. However, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the supply of physicians is steadily growing. They report that between 2007 and 2011, the number of physicians increased by 14%, compared to an increase of just under 5% for the general population. That said, approximately 10% of all women and 20% of all men over 12 years of age do not have a regular doctor, with young adults aged 20-34 being the least likely to have a doctor, according to Statistics Canada.
In summary, there is definitely a real and urgent shortage of doctors in North America, and this must be addressed immediately. More medical students must be allowed to graduate and enter residency positions every year; efforts must be made to make primary care a more appealing choice for new doctors; and highly qualified foreign-trained physicians should be able to get work permits more easily in order to address this issue quickly. For now, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and physician assistants will be required to take on more responsibilities when it comes to routine patient concerns, and while this is a neat and attractive solution to somewhat reduce the workload of many primary care physicians, there are fears that it might be a little too little, a little too late.