Physician Shortage to Quadruple Within Decade, AAMC Says

Christopher Cheney, January 4, 2011

The numbers do not look promising.

According to an Association of American Colleges report, U.S. specialties will reach a shortage of 91,500 doctors by 2020. The AAMC predicts Americans will need an estimated 45,000 primary care physicians and 46,000 surgeons and medical specialists.

"It's certainly the worse [shortage] that we'll have seen in the last 30 years," says AAMC chief advocacy officer Atul Grover.

"For the first time since the 1930s, our number [of physicians] per capita will start to drop in the next couple of years. That's less doctors per person, but at the same time, since they are aging and have more chronic illnesses, each person is going to need more healthcare and not less healthcare. That's a pretty bad situation," he says.

There are currently 709,700 physicians (in all specialties) for a demand of 723,400 physicians, with an existing shortage of 13,700. By comparison, in 2020, there will be 759,800 physicians (in all specialties) for a demand of 851,300 physicians, essentially a shortage of 91,500 too few doctors, according to the report.

One third of all physicians will be turning in their white coat and stethoscope for retirement, states the report, but the supply of doctors will only increase by 7%, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

With a tug and war between supply and demand, the predicted shortage of doctors will leave many Americans without any, or with insufficient, care. The most affected areas will likely to be rural regions and inner-city areas, according to the report. Because physicians are not evenly distributed across the country per capita, there are likely to be gaps in provider services in less-recruitable parts of the country, such as rural and inner-city areas.

Crunching the numbers
The shortage of 91,500 is a higher estimate than other studies have previously reported. The AAMC report is based on data from the Center for Workforce, which includes utilization of medical care, as well as census projections of the U.S. population. Researchers factored in physician retirement rates, increases in doctors from various specialties and regions, and healthcare insurance expansion.

Christopher Cheney

Christopher Cheney is the senior finance editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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