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Analysis

New Survey Casts Doubt on Severity of Physician Shortage

By Christopher Cheney  
   November 08, 2019

Most patients are not struggling to schedule new visits with generalists and specialists, new survey finds.

The U.S. physician shortage may not be as dire as previously predicted, according to a new survey report commissioned by the Houston-based Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute.

The Association of American Medical Colleges has published alarming estimates of the country's physician short. Earlier this year, AAMC forecast that the physician shortage could expand to nearly 122,000 clinicians by 2032, including a shortfall of about 55,000 primary care physicians. In 2017, the AAMC estimated the overall physician shortage at 20,400 clinicians.

The new survey report, which is based on data collected from 2,000 patients and 750 physicians, says the AAMC's physician shortage estimate could be overstated. In particular, the survey report found that only 19% of patients struggled to have a new visit with a generalist and only 15% struggled to set a new visit with a specialist.

"The best way to tell if we have a doctor shortage is by asking patients whether they can easily get an appointment. For now, they overwhelmingly say 'yes,'" Arthur "Tim" Garson Jr., MD, MPH, director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute, said in a prepared statement.

The survey, which quizzed patients and physicians on a range of healthcare issues, was conducted this year in June and July.

Despite the positive finding on patients' ability to schedule new visits, physicians surveyed are bracing for doctor shortages:

  • 90% of generalist physicians predict there will be a shortage of generalists within five years
     
  • 78% of specialist physicians predict there will be a shortage of specialists within five years

Easing physician shortages

The survey report highlights four approaches to address future physician shortages if they worsen.

1. Nurse practitioners: Both generalist and specialist physicians expect nurse practitioners to ease their workloads over the next five years: 77% of generalists and 70% of specialists said they expected to see fewer patients as nurse practitioners saw more patients.

2. Postponing of retirement: About 4 in 5 of physicians said they would consider postponing retirement under certain conditions. The top condition was doubling the amount of time available to spend with each patient, with 34% of generalists and 30% of specialists saying more time with patients could delay retirement. The second-highest condition cited was a 10% increase in income, with 21% of generalists and 20% of specialists saying that the higher compensation could delay retirement.

3. Service requirement in underserved areas: There was a significant measure of enthusiasm for a graduation requirement that medical degree students serve two years in an underserved area before their residency training. Among generalists and specialists, 45% said they were either very enthusiastic or somewhat enthusiastic about the graduation requirement.

4. Education reform: Nearly half of the physicians surveyed said the United States Medical Licensing Examination does not test candidates for what is required to be a practicing physician: 45% of generalists and 40% of specialists.

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

In a new survey, only 19% of patients struggled to have a new visit with a generalist.

The survey found only 15% of patients struggled to set a new visit with a specialist.

Despite the patient visit data, most generalist and specialist physicians expect doctor shortages to worsen over the next five years.


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