By Christine Whitmarsh, RN, BSN
The growing shortage of physicians, particularly those in primary care roles, is being affected by both ends of the age spectrum. On one end, we have an aging population of primary care physicians who are either reluctant or unable to retire due to the shortage. This of course cannot last forever. These doctors will eventually have to hang up their stethoscopes. Statistics show that 4,500 of America’s primary care doctors are older than 75. This is especially noteworthy since about half of all practicing physicians fifty years ago practiced in general medicine, versus the less than one third of the workforce currently in general practice. The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that the workforce of family practice doctors needs to multiply by 40 to 50 percent by 2020.
In the meantime, this pattern of older physicians continuing to practice is especially true in rural areas and small towns, where some older doctors are the sole source of medical care in the community. They cannot leave unless they find a replacement. And unfortunately, replacements are becoming harder and harder to come by. As medical school debt rises, the economy slumps and it becomes harder and harder to repay the six figure debt, doctors at the other end of the shortage spectrum – the younger end – are finding specialty medicine more lucrative than general practice. The disparity in Medicare reimbursement rates between general and specialty practice is one factor in this that many physicians and locum tenens physicians are hoping is included in current government reform proposals.
Without an adequate supply of general practice physicians, patient outcomes are negatively affected by long waits, long drives to the closest facility staffed by these physicians and postponed care that leads to worsened conditions. Physician travel jobs and locum tenens jobs, can help provide staffing relief for older physicians ready to retire. Locum physician jobs can also give younger physicians the opportunity to gain specialty experience while also working in general practice for two to three times the salary of a permanent primary care physician.
Data Sources: American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians
Christine Whitmarsh is a Registered Nurse with a BSN from the University of Rhode Island. She is a freelance health journalist and medical writer and a contributor to Travel Nurse Source and Allied Travel Careers.