Finding a family doctor could get a lot more difficult in the next 10 years.
The United States already has a physician shortage—fewer doctors than are necessary to meet patient demand in a reasonable amount of time. But it’s about to get a lot worse. By 2030, the U.S. medical system will be short as many as 121,500 doctors, according to a recent estimate by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Some medical schools have framed the problem in financial terms: Last month New York University announced a plan to offer free tuition to help reduce future doctors’ debt loads. It’s the first medical school to offer such a deal, but it probably won’t be the last. NYU’s associate dean for admissions and financial aid, Rafael Rivera, said medical schools have a “moral imperative” to remove potential obstacles, especially for doctors who might choose less lucrative fields, like primary care, if they didn’t have so much debt.
But is the prospect of mountainous student loans really keeping America’s best and brightest from choosing a career in medicine?
The number of students applying to medical school suggests it’s not. Medical schools have increased enrollment by 30 percent since 2002, and the number of applicants has grown by 50 percent. To help accommodate all the physician hopefuls, 22 new medical schools have opened since 2007.
If so many students want to become doctors, why do we have a projected shortage?
Demographics play a significant role. The number of Americans aged 65 or older is expected to grow by 50 percent between 2016 and 2030. By contrast, the population under 18 is expected to grow by only 3 percent. Older people need more medical care.
And while medical schools are turning out new doctors, they’re not enough to replace the ones hanging up their stethoscopes. More than one-third of all active physicians will be 65 or older within the next decade.
Another problem: Younger doctors are working less. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, if the trend of physicians working part time continues at current levels, we will have 32,500 fewer doctors working full time in 2030—about one-quarter of the overall projected shortage.
David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, blames the increase in part-time doctors on burnout. Younger doctors, especially millennials, have a different view of work-life balance. They want more time at home with their families and are willing to work less and make less to have a better quality of life, Stevens told me.
But the medical profession’s industrialization has pushed doctors of all ages to consider cutting back. Most doctors now work as employees for large healthcare networks that are more focused on the bottom line than on building patient relationships.
“It used to be a profession where you as an individual have a covenant relationship with the patient, you’re running your own practice, you had control,” Stevens said. “Healthcare professionals feel like they have very little control or say in what happens and they’ve become units of production.”
And while many doctors struggle with disillusionment over changes to their profession, Stevens finds the problem particularly acute among Christian physicians: “People get a few years of practice and they think, ‘Wow, is my life going to be like this for the rest of my life? I want to have ministry. I want to build myself into people's lives. I want to provide them spiritual and physical healing, and I’m not having the opportunity to do that like I hoped.’”