As one of the most prestigious career options to pursue, it’s no secret that the path to becoming a physician is difficult to say the least. It’s common for the education and training of a physician to take up to a decade, thus deterring away many who aspire to ascend to the rank of medical doctor. Those who are already in the field consider early retirement or leaving the medical practice altogether due to effects from the Affordable Healthcare Act, regular physician burnout and large numbers of hospital consolidations. Unfortunately, according to a study from the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges,) the number of physicians over the next decade is not expected to keep up with the aging population, increasing the need, the demand, and the search for locum tenens physicians.
Currently, the total number of “active” physicians has increased to over 860k, which is a 2% increase from the 799k physicians that were active in 2010. With such a small rate of growth during that span of time, there’s concern about offsetting the projected physician shortage in 2025. Once seen as a last resort, hospitals are now utilizing locum tenens physicians as part of their staffing strategy. Physician burnout is a contributing factor to hospitals and medical facilities’ difficulty in retaining permanent physicians, therefore, employing locum tenens physicians on a regular basis helps to alleviate the stress of overworked staff physicians and affords them more time off. Still, while hospitals are finding that employing locum tenens physicians assist with permanent staff physician retention, there’s still a concern about where the medical landscape will be in 2025.
“You see absolute numbers of physicians going up, but not fast enough to meet the demand,” Dr. Janis Orlowski, AAMC ’s chief healthcare officer, said in an interview. “The two largest factors are the increase in the population itself and the aging of the population. People who are older see more physicians than healthy people in their 20s.”
Are Measures Being Taken?
Much of the blame is placed on Congress for its lack of desire to increase federal funding to train future physicians. Hospitals feel that they’re constrained by their ability to offer residency for medical students under the current federal funding allotment. The AAMC is asking for an additional $1 billion annually for hospitals and medical centers to fund physician training and increase residency slots. Hospitals currently train about 27,000 to 29,000 doctors each year. The requested additional funding will allow for at least 3,000 more doctors to go through residency programs. With a projected lapse of 46k to 90k physicians by 2025, the additional support is needed to supplement the gap.
Government officials have debated and argued the issue, stating that issues with an excess of physicians practicing in major cities and surrounding areas is a major reason as to why those in rural environments are without care. Programs have been put in place to encourage doctors to practice in areas where there is a shortage of readily available medical care. There are even states who offer assistance with medical school debt (a number that has reached an average of $166,750) in order to support physicians who promise to practice medicine in underserved parts of the country. Fortunately, locum tenens physicians have managed to combat the issue of permanent physician shortage that rural areas currently face.
Is the Outlook Truly So Grim?
Although there’s a consensus amongst medical professionals that a glowing issue remains with the physician shortage in the country, not everyone is of the same mindset. Linda Green, a mathematician who studies the health care system, argues that the system is fine and that people have overestimated the amount of doctors needed to keep up with the demands of the population over the next 10-15 years.
“Generally everybody has been screaming that the sky is falling and we have this shortage of something like 45,000 physicians in the next 15 years,” says Green, a professor in the decision, risk and operations department of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. “We’re saying, no, it’s not. You’re basing your projections on the wrong model.”
Green argues that the health care system is changing. Doctors are turning in private practices to join bigger practices in an effort to share office space and resources. This will enable them to take on more patients. Additionally, the roles of non-physician support staff are changing and having them treat minor routine ailments like strep throat and ear infections will aid in allowing physicians to take on a larger patient population. Locum tenens physicians have proven to be an additional helpful resource as medical facilities have taken on more patients. Although both sides disagree on the scope of the issue, they do agree that there does in fact lie an issue with a shortage of physicians that needs to be solved and measures need to be put in place today. Theoretically, reducing physician burnout by employing more locum tenens physicians and providing more funding for medical schools to train more doctors should reduce the projected physician shortage by a large margin.
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