It’s not your imagination. Finding a healthcare provider, particularly a family physician or primary care physician, is not as easy as it used to be. Whether you need to switch because your doctor retired or closed up shop, you or your doctor moved, or you just don’t want to continue with the same office, you should start planning sooner than later.
The American Association of Medical Colleges predicts there will be a shortage of between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034. That is only 11 years from now. But why doesn’t the U.S. have enough doctors? It’s a combination of things.
Cost is a big issue
Medical education in the U.S. is expensive. According to the Education Data Initiative, medical school costs over $60,000 per year, which is four years long. And this is after four years of studying for an undergraduate degree. As a result, graduates can expect to accumulate at least $400,000 of debt for their education, and often more.
Then add the residency period. During residency, newly minted MDs (medical doctors) and DOs (doctors of osteopathic medicine) work under the supervision of more experienced residents and attending doctors. Residencies can run from three years to seven, depending on the specialty. Residents do get paid, but not at the same rate as practicing physicians, so it’s hard for them to start making a dent in their debt.
For example, according to Salary.com, the average salary for a medical resident in California typically falls between $56,518 and $70,725. In Vermont, the range typically is between $48,726 and $60,974, while in Hawaii, it is between $53,087 and $66,432. Residents are usually asked to start paying back a portion of their undergraduate and medical school loans. There is an option to defer payment, but if they do that, this adds to their debt because of the additional interest.
Specialties versus family medicine
More medical school graduates are choosing specialties, rather than primary care. A big part of that decision goes back to economics. Primary healthcare providers don’t earn as much money as specialists do. Their base salary does seem high compared to the average person. Still, we have to take into account that new doctors start earning money later in life because of how long it takes to get through college, medical school, and residencies, so they have catching up to do — and we can’t forget their school debt.
Family medicine is also not perceived as a prestigious career. It can lack the status of a medical specialty, like cardiothoracic surgery or oncology. Because it is considered general medicine, it’s not uncommon for people to think of a family medicine practitioner as a jack of all trades, rather than focusing on cutting-edge treatments or discoveries.
However, as the number of primary care physicians drops, the need for them will continue to increase.
Family medicine remains important
Despite there being fewer family physicians, they remain an essential part of our healthcare and we can’t do without them.
Part of the increased demand for medical services is our living longer. The Administration for Community Living issued a report in 2021 that said that in 2019, 3.8 million people turned 65. The United States Census Bureau predicts that by 2060, “nearly one in four Americans will be 65 years and older, the number of 85-plus will triple, and the country will add a half million centenarians.” As people age, they can develop chronic diseases, like heart disease or diabetes. They may also become frail.
But there are also younger people who need more care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that young adults, aged 18 to 35 years, are increasingly likely to develop a chronic condition. Right now, almost 50% of this population has at least one chronic condition, including obesity, depression, and hypertension (high blood pressure). They also need medical care.
So, how do you find a healthcare professional when you need one?
Go to Part 2 for some answers.
The information in this blog is provided as an information and educational resource only. It is not to be used or relied upon for diagnostic or treatment purposes.
The blog does not represent or guarantee that its information is applicable to a specific patient’s care or treatment. The educational content in this blog is not to be interpreted as medical advice from any of the authors or contributors. It is not to be used as a substitute for treatment or advice from a practicing physician or other healthcare professional.