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Analysis

Physician Shortage Projected to Worsen Through 2033

By Christopher Cheney  
   June 26, 2020

Demographic factors such as population growth and aging are the primary drivers of the expected physician shortfall.

Physician demand will grow significantly higher than supply through 2033, according to a new report commissioned by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

The projected shortage of physicians is worsening. Last year, the AAMC projected the shortfall of physicians at as many as 122,000 by 2032. The new report released today projects the shortfall at as many as 139,000 physicians by 2033.

The new report includes several key findings:

  • By 2033, the projected shortfall of physicians ranges from 54,100 to 139,000.
     
  • By 2033, the projected shortfall of primary care physicians ranges from 21,400 to 55,200.
     
  • By 2033, the projected shortfall of non-primary care physicians ranges from 33,700 to 86,700. The physician shortage in surgical specialties ranges from 17,100 to 28,700. The physician shortage in medical specialties ranges from 9,300 to 17,800. The physician shortage in other specialties ranges from 17,100 to 41,900.

Driving the data

Two demographic factors—population growth and aging—are the primary drivers of the projected increasing demand for physicians through 2033, according to the new report.

  • Through 2033, the U.S. population is expected to grow by 10.4%, rising from about 327 million people in 2018 to 361 million people.
     
  • The population under age 18 is projected to grow 3.9%, which would lead to low growth in demand for pediatric specialties.
     
  • The population of people 65 and older is projected to grow by 45.1%, which would lead to high demand for physician specialties that care for geriatric patients.
     
  • Retirements are expected to thin the ranks of physicians through 2033. "More than two of five currently active physicians will be 65 or older within the next decade. Shifts in retirement patterns over that time could have large implications for physician supply. Growing concerns about physician burnout, documented in the literature, suggest physicians will be more likely to accelerate than delay retirement," the new report says.

Coronavirus pandemic impact

The coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic is expected to have several short- and long-term impacts on the physician workforce, the new report says.

  • The pandemic is likely to affect the physician educational pipeline such as cancelation of clinical rotations and other interruptions in physician education.
     
  • The pandemic is likely to affect physician regulations such as changes in licensure.
     
  • The pandemic has already affected the practice of medicine such as the explosive growth of telemedicine.
     
  • The pandemic will have an uncertain effect on physician workforce exits, with early burnout-induced retirements potentially lowering the physician supply and the weakened economy potentially increasing the physician supply as doctors delay retirement.
     
  • The pandemic will likely affect the specialties that new physicians select such as an increased number of doctors choosing to work in infectious disease.

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


KEY TAKEAWAYS

By 2033, the shortfall of physicians is expected to range from 54,100 to 139,000, according to a new report commissioned by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The projected shortage is expected to be greatest among primary care physicians, with the 2033 shortfall ranging from 21,400 to 55,200.

Retirements of physicians are expected to put downward pressure on the supply of physicians.

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