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The Shortage of Physicians Continues to Cause Problems

"Is there a doctor in the house?"

In North America, the answer to that question is often no. The total number of doctors is growing, but not fast enough. And many specialties are in short supply. If you've got the ability and the drive, and you like to feel needed, medicine might be your bag.

The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts that the United States will face a shortage of 125,000 physicians by 2025.

"We've projected a shortage across the board in all specialties, particularly those who care for the elderly," says Clese Erikson. She's the AAMC's director for workforce research.

Erikson says the projection is based on the assumption that all factors will stay constant, like the number of students entering medical school. Possible health-care reforms will likely add to the demand, and could increase the shortage to as many as 155,000 doctors.

"People talk a lot right now about the need for primary care [such as family medicine], which is always in high demand. But other specialties will be in short supply as well," Erikson says.

Shortages are more common in rural areas. However, they are also expected to hit urban areas.

To cope with the shortages, the AAMC has several plans in place. These plans include increasing medical school enrollment, increasing payments to physicians practicing in under-served areas and improving efficiency of medical workers. The AAMC also plans to employ more health professionals like nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Doctors require specialized education and training for 10 to 15 years after high school. This training is normally provided in an urban center. Many physicians get married during their training, which ties them even more to a particular city. That makes it difficult to attract physicians to more rural, remote areas.

To attract doctors, some towns have pooled the resources of local health services, businesses and local government. They raise funds or offer perks to doctors willing to move to their community.

Dr. Perry Pugno is the director of medical education for the American Academy of Family Practice (AAFP). He says income and lifestyle factors have contributed to the drop in numbers of medical school graduates choosing careers in primary care (family medicine). Family physicians tend to work more hours per week and spend more time on-call than other specialists. Their incomes also tend to be lower.

"We still have a shortage [of family physicians], and it is going to get worse. We need a goodly number in the next 10 years to meet the anticipated demand," he says.

According to an AAFP workforce study, the United States will need 139,591 family physicians to meet the expected need in 2020. To achieve this number, family medicine residency programs must produce 3,725 graduates a year by 2020.

To attract more people to family medicine, the AAFP is encouraging medical school admissions staff to admit more students with an interest in the specialty. It is communicating the advantages of family medicine to medical students. And it is exposing students to outstanding family doctors, so they have a better understanding of the profession's rewards.

Pugno says one great thing about family medicine is that family doctors can go just about anywhere they want and set up a successful practice. That's because family physicians are needed everywhere -- unlike specialists such as pediatric neurologists, who typically practice in urban centers.

"It's an excellent career because the demand is substantial now and will get greater," he says. "Also, family physicians are among the most satisfied of physician specialties."

Each specialty faces shortages in certain areas of the country. However, general surgery, pediatric psychiatry and family medicine are experiencing shortages on a national level.

Erikson says the shortage of physicians is good news for students interested in a medical career. "It's clear that physicians are going to be in high demand in the future," she says. "It's not just primary care, but all kinds of specialties, like cardiology and endocrinology, that will have openings for aspiring young physicians."

She also notes that it's easier to get into medical school than many students realize. Nearly one out of every two students who apply to medical school is accepted. "There are better odds than you might think," she says.


American Academy of Family Physicians
This site explains what it means to be a family physician and outlines the training required

American Medical Association
Basic information about becoming a physician, including how to prepare for medical school and how to choose a specialty

Medical Dictionary
Look up any medical term you can imagine

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.