'A snowball effect': Why this trend is making physicians nervous

As physician shortages worsen, healthcare and ASC leaders are worried about the effect it could have on patient care. 

The U.S. could see a shortage of 54,100 to 139,000 physicians by 2033, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges cited in a July 25 Time report. 

"Physician and nursing shortages are projected to exponentially get worse in the next coming years while our current physicians and nurses are already being asked to do more to compensate for the shortages," Jackie McLaughlin, RN, administrator of the Northwoods Surgery Center in Woodruff, Wis., told Becker's in September. "I fear industrywide burnout will create a snowball effect with the looming shortages."

Physicians are aging alongside the population — more than 2 in 5 active physicians will be older than 65 in the next decade, according to data from the American Medical Association. Additionally, nearly half of all physician searches last year (48 percent) were to replace departing physicians, according to a report from Association for Advancing Physician and Provider Recruitment. 

"With an increasing elderly population and demand for more complex medical issues, I see the physician supply versus demand coming to a head soon," Eric Eskioglu, MD, a neurosurgeon based in Charlotte, N.C., told Becker's. 

Patients are already feeling the effects of the shortage. 

The time it takes to schedule a new patient physician appointment in 15 major metropolitan areas increased by 8 percent since 2017 and by 24 percent from 2004, according to a 2022 Merritt Hawkins report. 

Dr. Eskioglu is also concerned about the trend of travel nurses emerging with physicians, particularly with younger physicians. 

"I expect to see more temporary physician demands with people opting for higher pay, more time spent with family and different geographical venues to combat physician burnout," he said. 

Some leaders are noticing a push toward increasing wages for healthcare workers, but increasing physician wages is left out of this conversation. Congress' $1.7 trillion omnibus package kept a 2 percent Medicare reimbursement cut to physicians in 2023, and 2024 may bring at least another 1.25 percent cut.

Politicians are leaning into "quick fixes" for this problem, Marsha Haley, MD, clinical assistant professor of radiation oncology at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told Becker's

Long-term solutions include investing in increasing residency positions and quality nursing education and nurse retention, she said. 

Machine learning and artificial intelligence could also help, according to Dr. Eskioglu. 

"With medical knowledge doubling every 72 days, we need to relegate memorization and patient data search to artificial intelligence [and] lessen the cognitive burden on physicians, thereby increasing the amount they spend on higher judgment problem-solving skills on their patients' healthcare," he said. 

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