The U.S. is facing a worrying physician shortage. It’s been coming for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the issue. And, according to a survey by Mercer, things are only going to get worse unless drastic changes are implemented. In fact, the consulting firm predicts that demand for healthcare workers will outpace supply by 2025. This includes a shortage of more than 400,000 home health aides and 29,400 nurse practitioners. They also predict a shortage of 100,000 physicians by 2030.
If we don’t address these worrying predictions as a nation soon, then we will be facing a major healthcare crisis.
But what’s the solution?
In this post, we will be answering questions including “Why is there a physician shortage?”, and “What can we do to address the healthcare workforce shortage?”.
If you work in the healthcare industry, then these strategies are for you.
Is there a physician shortage?
The COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on the healthcare industry. This, together with a number of other important factors which we will explore in the next section, has led to a healthcare workforce shortage in the U.S. What’s more, things are predicted to get even worse in the coming years.
Here are a few concerning statistics to give you an idea of what we can expect.
Mercer predicts that by 2025:
- There will be a shortage of 446,300 home health aides.
- We will have 95,000 fewer nursing assistants and 29,400 fewer nursing practitioners than we need to manage predicted healthcare needs.
- There will be a shortage of 98,700 medical and lab technologists and technicians.
Further studies predict that by 2034, the United States will have 134,000 fewer physicians than it needs. This is an alarming prediction.
Rural areas are expected to experience more shortages than urban areas. In fact, according to current data for Healthcare Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs), mostly-rural states such as Utah, Vermont, and Tennessee are already experiencing record-breaking physician shortages per capita.
Certain medical specialities are also experiencing higher shortages than others, including neurology, psychiatry, pulmonary care, and critical-care services. However, the area of the healthcare industry that is experiencing the biggest shortfall is primary care. And this is putting additional strain on emergency departments.
So, in response to the question “Is there a physician shortage?”, the answer is clear: yes, there most definitely is. We are facing a critical public health crisis that requires immediate and long-term solutions if we are to protect the health of our nation moving forwards.
Why is there a physician shortage?
So, why is there a physician shortage? What are the causes?
The obvious answer that most people assume is that the current healthcare workforce shortage is down to the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, the pandemic took a huge toll on the healthcare industry, especially for those doctors and nurses who were battling on the front lines. This resulted in many healthcare workers experiencing elevated levels of stress, anxiety, trauma, and burnout. Because of this, may have since left the industry or branched out into other medical specialities with more favorable working conditions.
However, it’s not all down to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the doctor shortage has been building up for years now. The COVID-19 pandemic just accelerated the situation.
For one thing, the ageing population is an important contributing factor. After World War II, there was a huge boom in the population. This so-called Baby Boomer generation is now getting older, retiring, and requiring higher levels of medical care (including working physicians). Plus, advances in medicine mean that more people are living longer, which is contributing to the growing numbers of people now requiring extended healthcare as they age.
Moreover, the physician shortage is being made worse by a lack of funding and caps on the number of Medicare-funded residency slots. These were imposed by Congress nearly 25 years ago as a cost-saving measure. Although the number of medical school graduates has increased significantly over the past two decades, Medicare-funded training has remained at 1996 levels. As a result, over 3,300 applicants were unable to obtain a residency slot in 2022.
All these factors have set the scene for the current physician shortage and the increasing healthcare workforce shortages we can expect to see in the coming years unless we act now and implement the right strategies.
Strategies to overcome the physician shortage
If the healthcare industry doesn’t react now and implement strategies to tackle some of these issues, physician shortages are going to continue increasing. And this will have an impact on every individual in the U.S. that needs access to healthcare.
But which strategies should the healthcare industry be focusing on to overcome the physician shortage? Where do we start?
Unfortunately, there is no single quick-fix solution. Instead, the healthcare industry needs to focus on a range of solutions. These solutions should include both long and short-term strategies.
These strategies should be built around the following four key pillars:
- Technological solutions that address staff shortages and improve patient care.
- Administrative solutions that target job satisfaction, diversity, wellness, and compensation.
- Recruitment solutions such as implementing international hiring practices and exploring micro-credentialing opportunities.
- Legislative solutions that facilitate increased access to affordable health care and promote employee wellness.
Let’s take a look at these strategies and a few other ideas in a bit more detail. That way, you might pick up a few tips for your own healthcare facility and hopefully play your part in reversing the national physician shortage.
As we mentioned above, the caps on Medicare residency positions are having a big impact on the physician shortage. Fewer doctors are able to get primary care positions in their local communities and increasing numbers are turning to more specialized roles.
It’s not just doctors either. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools turned away over 80,000 qualified applicants from graduate nursing programs in 2019 due to an insufficient number of qualified faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, and budget constraints.
There just isn’t enough funding to train and hire enough doctors and nurses. Even when the lucky few manage to obtain a spot for graduate training, funding issues are having an impact on salary benchmarks and practitioners are looking elsewhere for higher-paying positions.
If we are to improve the physician shortage in the U.S., the first step needs to be increased funding for the healthcare industry. Medicare caps also need to be lifted. These two steps alone would improve access to training and enable healthcare facilities to better care for the people in their communities.
Another important strategy for reversing the healthcare workforce shortage relates to leadership. Healthcare facilities need to offer the right training so that their managers can effectively lead their teams to a better future.
For example, an effective leader:
- Promotes the continuous professional development of employees. This enables them to provide a higher quality of safety and care to patients.
- Emphasizes the importance of showing empathy and compassion and listening to patients. This gives patients a voice and a platform to express any concerns or specific medical needs.
- Offers support to employees that might be experiencing issues with stress or burnout.
- Promotes participation and invites team members to voice any concerns or raise suggestions for improvement. They also offer practical support for staff to innovate within safe boundaries.
- Ensures everyone understands what they need to do and that they have the tools and resources to do it.
- Gives constructive feedback on performance to employees and shows appreciation.
- Insists that employees are transparent and that they report any errors, serious incidents, or complaints. They also reinforce the idea that mistakes are opportunities to learn.
- Implements measures to address performance issues and confidently handles any aggressive, inappropriate, or unacceptable behaviors displayed by staff, patients, or carers.
- Encourages and motivates their team and strives to continuously improve the way a healthcare facility operates.
Explore tech solutions
Technology has advanced hugely in the past few years, and AI, automation, and Big Data have the potential to change the healthcare industry for the better. In order to confront the challenge of the physician shortage, healthcare facilities must modernize their systems and adopt new technology to enhance the way they offer care to patients.
- Healthcare databases with access to detailed analytics can help facilities offer streamlined services, improve performance, and make data-driven decisions relating to care and treatment.
- Telehealth solutions enable doctors to provide remote video consultations to certain patients. This enables doctors to offer more appointments and it saves patients from having to come into the practice for care. This can be especially beneficial for patients with ongoing chronic conditions who only require a check-up or repeat prescription. And with the time they save, doctors can focus more on patients with acute and critical health conditions instead. What’s more, telehealth solutions can also benefit physicians as they can follow a hybrid work schedule and regain a better work-life balance. This can be a great solution for increasing retention levels.
- Artificial intelligence tools can be used for smart appointment scheduling and prioritizing urgent cases. This can help to reduce appointment waiting times. Plus, in the case of imaging exams such as MRIs, cancelled appointments can be automatically assigned to patients on a waiting list.
- Virtual hospitals can help to address the increasing physician shortage in rural areas, enabling remote treatment in areas where patients may have difficulty reaching a general practitioner.
- Robotics can help to reduce surgeon fatigue and prevent burnout. Robotics can also benefit short-staffed nursing homes by performing repetitive tasks such as fetching equipment and administering medication.
- Simulation labs and other virtual learning platforms can improve access to medical training, especially in remote areas.
Prioritize healthcare worker wellness
Employee burnout is an occupational syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty, and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work. Unfortunately, due to the Herculean efforts of healthcare workers during the pandemic, burnout has become a common occurrence in the healthcare industry. And this is contributing to the physician shortage. It’s also costing the industry a great deal of money. In fact, according to The University of Texas Medical Branch, the total annual cost of burnout among healthcare workers now amounts to $300 billion.
This issue needs to be addressed urgently.
The best strategy for reversing the negative effects on staff of the COVID-19 pandemic, including stress, anxiety, and burnout, is prioritizing employee wellness.
Here are a few wellness initiatives that healthcare facilities can include:
- Offer physicians flexible scheduling and hybrid work solutions where relevant and possible.
- Dedicate more resources to employee support, such as burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder programs or therapy for pandemic-related PTSD.
- Stick to staffing minimums and nurse/patient ratios at all times. Aside from reducing employee stress levels, offering a better level of one-to-one care also reduces extended patient stays and cuts costs.
- Implement tech solutions to streamline your workflows and support your staff, as we saw above.
- Promote employee empowerment and offer regular training to all staff so that they have the skills required to offer their patients a good level of care.
- Collect regular feedback from your employees to keep track of how they are feeling. Employee engagement surveys can be a great tool for this. Also, offer support and guidance when needed.
As we saw earlier in the post, it’s also important to address the administrative side of the healthcare industry in order to reduce the physician shortage.
For example, medical practices should introduce policy initiatives that support employee development. These policies should include access to regular employee training. They should also include strategies for providing better access to people who want to enter the healthcare industry. For example, Prism Health in South Carolina has recently partnered with a number of local universities to accelerate training programs, make education more accessible, and help medical students with tuition.
Another effective strategy in this regard is micro-credentialing. Micro-credentials are short training programs that help employees upskill and reskill their qualifications. This helps healthcare facilities build a more versatile workforce with more flexibility. As a result, staffing shortages are easier to cover and the level of care offered to patients increases. Plus, promoting continuous learning increases job satisfaction and retention levels.
Build a diverse workforce
The final strategy we are going to share today relates to diversity.
The United States prides itself on being a diverse and multicultural nation. However, despite this fact, there is still a great deal of gender and racial inequality in the healthcare industry. For example, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 36% of physicians are women, only 5% are Black, and only 5.8% are Hispanic. Moreover, 75% of nurse practitioners, physical therapists and occupational therapists are white. Yet white people only represent 60% of the U.S. population.
Something’s not right here. And this presents a promising opportunity to reverse the effects of the ongoing physician shortage. By promoting diversity and equal opportunities for all, healthcare facilities can access a much wider talent pool and take a big step towards addressing understaffing issues.
The people are there; we just need to follow more diverse strategies to attract, train, and recruit them. Instead of putting up barriers, we should be working to increase the number of applicants from minority groups and welcoming them into the healthcare industry. With the right approach, this can help the U.S. take big strides towards reducing the physician shortage and offering better healthcare to all.