Shortage of Primary Care Physicians is Critical

Shortage of Primary Care Physicians is Critical

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Primary care physicians are in high demand, and that’s not changing anytime soon. According to a study by the American Academy of Primary Care, demand for PCPs is projected to increase by 19% by 2025 as opposed to other specialty areas like internal medicine, which is expected only to see a 6% increase. Why is there such a shortage? Primary care physicians can practice in several different settings. They can work in private practices, group practices, or clinics. Some may work as hospitalists or focus on a specific population, like athletes or the elderly. Others find opportunities with non-profit organizations or government roles as disease management administrators and obesity intervention specialists. The list goes on and on. 

Meaning and Importance of Primary Care

Primary care physicians are the foot soldiers of the medical world. They provide the bulk of preventative care for patients and are responsible for keeping patients healthy. It can range from annual checkups to prescribing medication and managing chronic diseases like diabetes. Primary care physicians also play a key role in health screenings, such as pap smears, colonoscopies, and vaccines. They also provide a large portion of mental health care. They are the gatekeepers to mental health treatment and can help patients get the proper care at the right time. There are many reasons why there is a shortage of primary care physicians, but we will dive into some of the most common reasons why this career field has seen such a shortage:

Job Burnout

The American Burn Association estimates that 50% of all physicians will experience clinical burnout at some point in their careers. Burnout among PCPs has been observed at higher rates than other specialties, with one study finding burnout rates as high as 80%. It could be because PCPs often have to handle immense workloads due to the high demand for their services. In an article from the Annals of Internal Medicine, one PCP revealed that he had to see more than 80 patients per day. In addition, PCPs often provide services that other specialties don’t, such as caring for the underserved and managing chronic diseases. Dr. Neil Cherry, a primary care physician with 26 years of experience, has seen the symptoms of burnout firsthand. “The most common reasons for burnout are too much work, too much demand on labor, too little authority or control over work, too little reward for effort, and too little time for rest and recreation.”

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Low Pay for PCPs

Many people choose medical careers because of the high pay. However, PCPs aren’t receiving that high pay. They are making less than they did 20 years ago. This may seem strange for a shortage, but it is undoubtedly a contributing factor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a primary care physician is $208,000. While this seems like a good living, you have to consider the years of schooling, the massive debt you accumulate, and PCPs often work more than 40 hours per week. Dr. Cherry says this is the No. 1 reason why people don’t go into PCP. He said, “Taking a loan to become a doctor is a bad idea, in my opinion.”

Not Enough Residency Slots for Primary Care Doctors

The number of residency slots for primary care physicians has decreased, which could contribute to the shortage. There were 50% fewer residency slots available for general internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics in the 1990s than in the 1970s. Reasons for this include reduced federal funding and specialty physicians taking over primary care duties. As specialty physicians began to see the benefits of working in primary care, they started to push for more residency slots in PCPs. Now, this is all changing as the country is experiencing an overall shortage of all physicians, not just PCPs.

Lack of Infrastructure

As mentioned above, the number of residency slots has declined. This can affect the infrastructure needed to train primary care physicians properly. Training positions have dropped as demand for primary care physicians has increased. It could mean that the future of PCPs doesn’t look so bright. The lack of infrastructure and a decrease in residency positions could result in a shortage of trained PCPs.

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Aging Baby Boomer Population

With the aging Baby Boomer population, there is expected to be an increase in the number of people with chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Dr. Cherry says this is one of the biggest reasons for a shortage of primary care physicians. There are about 77 million Baby Boomers in the United States, and this population is expected to grow to more than 88 million by 2030. As these Baby Boomers age and become more susceptible to chronic diseases, they will need more and more primary care physicians. The number of PCPs could be insufficient to care for this growing population of chronic disease patients.

Existing Healthcare Staffing Shortages

Some areas of the country are experiencing existing healthcare staffing shortages. This could prevent physicians from choosing to practice in those areas and contribute to a shortage of PCPs. For example, rural areas often have a shortage of healthcare professionals because they can’t compete with the salaries offered in bigger cities. It can make it harder to recruit physicians to rural areas. A significant portion of primary care physicians is trained in rural areas. If there’s a shortage in those areas, finding a job as a PCP can make it challenging.

Limited Compensation and Working Conditions

As we mentioned above, the current salary of PCPs is less than what it was 20 years ago. This could be a contributing factor to the shortage of PCPs. Many physicians are unsatisfied with the way healthcare organizations treat them. Physicians are often overworked, which can be seen in the growing number of physician burnout cases. Dr. Cherry says there is much room for improvement in how physicians are treated.

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Conclusion

There is a shortage of primary care physicians across the United States. This shortage is wide-ranging, but some of the biggest reasons are job burnout, low pay for PCPs, insufficient residency slots for primary care doctors, a lack of infrastructure, the aging Baby Boomer population, and existing healthcare staffing shortages and limited compensation and working conditions. To combat this shortage, we will have to address these issues head-on. Let’s face it: primary care as a practice is not at the peak of its popularity. However, as the population continues to grow and age, we need more general practitioners and family physicians.

The demand for primary care physicians is growing, but the supply isn’t keeping up. This shortage is especially acute in rural and inner-city neighborhoods where access to quality primary care services is limited. These locations tend to have a high patient population with low incomes, which makes it more challenging to attract medical professionals who may not be willing to live in or practice in these locations.

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