Is there a physician shortage?

Is there a physician shortage? A look at how the workforce is changing, and physicians are working fewer hours

In this 2 Minute Update, we look at a study evaluating changes in the physician workforce over 20 years, from 2001 until 2021. This study utilized survey data. The surveys were administered to 17,599 unique households over 20 years. The surveys evaluated trends in the size of the physician workforce, as well as those of physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

Researchers also looked at the number of hours people were working, and the location of practices, either in rural or urban settings. Overall, the number of physicians increased by almost one-third, but then fell 6.7% from 2019 to 2021. The number of physician assistants grew by 86%, and the number of nurse practitioners grew by 110%, but those numbers are still relatively small compared to the number of physicians.

As shown here, the number of physicians practicing in rural areas fell by 11.1%, while the proportion of physicians practicing in rural settings fell by about one-third. Overall, physicians are also working about 7.6% fewer hours. The number of hours worked fell the most among male physicians, especially those who are fathers. That number is down almost 12%. Mothers are the only physician group working more hours, up 2.8%, although that physician group works the fewest hours, but the difference is narrowing.

The US population grew 16.6% during this time. The physician workforce was keeping up, but the trends seen since the pandemic hit are very concerning. If both the number of physicians and the number of hours worked per physician continue to fall, we will likely see a worsening of the physician shortage we are currently experiencing.

As well, the physician workforce is aging. In 2001, only 5.5% were age 65 or older, and that number is now 12.2%. Older physicians also tend to work fewer hours, which might impact the shortage even more.



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