Skip to main content

News

US Physician Workforce is Getting Old, Fast

By John Commins  
   December 28, 2017

The nation's Baby Boomer physician workforce is aging along with the larger population. Forty-three percent of all physicians are age 55 or older. Specialists are on average older than are primary care doctors.

It's not just primary care physicians who are in short supply.

A white paper from physician recruiters Merritt Hawkins says it’s time to acknowledge the growing shortage of medical specialists, too.

"The notion that we should be training more primary care physicians while maintaining or reducing the supply of specialists is a grave miscalculation," said Mark Smith, president of Merritt Hawkins. "We should be training more of both types of physicians."

Since 2011, about 10,000 Baby Boomers each day turn 65 in the United States. Seniors 65 or older comprise 14% of the population but account for 34% of inpatient procedures and 37.4% of diagnostic treatments and tests.

"It is primarily specialists such as cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, rheumatologists, pulmonologists, vascular surgeons and many others who care for the declining health and organ systems of elderly patients," Smith said. "A growing number will be needed as the population ages."

The nation's Baby Boomer physician workforce is aging along with the larger population. Forty-three percent of all physicians are age 55 or older. Specialists are on average older than are primary care doctors. For example, 73% of pulmonologists and 60% of psychiatrists are age 65 or older, compared with 40% of internists and 38% of family practitioners, the white paper said.     

The study relies on data from Merritt Hawkins' physician search assignments conducted for hospitals and other healthcare providers that demonstrate the growing demand for medical specialists. It also cites Merritt Hawkins' physician surveys which show that 80% of specialists are overextended or are at capacity, while only 20% have time to see more patients or take on new duties.

Citing a 2017 Merritt Hawkins' survey, the white paper notes that the time it takes to schedule appointments with medical specialists such as cardiologists, dermatologists, orthopedic surgeons and obstetricians/gynecologists has increased significantly since 2014.

"In certain medical specialties, vascular surgery being just one, there are only a few thousand physicians, while patients with the conditions they treat number in the tens of millions," Smith said. "The data indicate that medical specialists will be in increasingly short supply, and this should be a serious concern for healthcare policy makers and the public."

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders.


Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.