It’s no surprise that the pandemic put a spotlight on the medical community and rallied the public behind our healthcare heroes. What does remain are questions. Will the United States be able to provide continual, consistent coverage, even in the face of health risks like another global pandemic? Do we have the capability and resources to treat an aging population even as we struggle with a population boom?
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimated that by 2034, there may be a physician shortage with a gap as large as 37,800 to124,000 healthcare professionals. This disturbing prediction includes primary care (17,800 - 48,000) as well as specialty (21,000 - 77,100) providers.
Physician Shortage Factors
Despite an increase in the number of advance practice nurses and physician assistants, the shortage crisis continues to loom for several reasons.
- Physicians are retiring —The AAMC estimates that more than two in five U.S. physicians will reach 65 or older within the next 10 years.
- Population volume and age —The population is expected to grow from 328 million to 363 million before 2034. Adults 65+ years old are projected to make up more than 42% of the population.
- Healthcare provider burnout — Even before the healthcare tsunami of the pandemic, physicians, APPs and nurses were reporting feeling burned out at least once a week. The dramatic shift in healthcare coverage during COVID-19 has only further heightened the burnout epidemic and may cause many providers to retire early or to cut their coverage hours.
- Deficit in rural coverage – The AAMC notes there are currently less than 40 physicians for every 100,000 rural residents. Physician shortages will continue to highlight this disparity, as rural areas struggle to compete for skilled healthcare workers against the draw of urban areas.
- Graduate medical education (GME) bottleneck– GME training positions are dependent on financing, with most of the funding coming from Medicare (almost $10 billion of the $15 billion annual costs). More than 4,000 U.S. residents graduate as physicians every year, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported an increase of residents by 22% from 2005-2015. Yet, the regional residency training programs have remained relatively consistent.
- Health insurance and access to care – Uninsured U.S. residents are more likely to put off care and skip screenings, which increases the chances of chronic diseases and leads to preventable conditions going undiagnosed. Identification that occurs during the late stages of diseases like cancer have a higher mortality rate and typically cost an average of $150,000 to treat. Increases in chronic or complex diseases means more specialist appointments and additional procedures, putting strain on an already taxed physician base.
The Cost of the Physician Shortage
Provider scarcity dramatically impacts patient care and total revenue. According to the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA), ripple effects from the shortage combined with healthcare policy changes are likely to affect operations and finance.
Without the doctors and advanced practitioners to provide essential services, patients won’t have access to procedures, surgeries and daily care that patients need. The financial impact ripples through daily operations – including supplies and staffing existing departments – and the ability to stay current with medical advances.
The chart below breaks down the average revenue that fuels health systems and physician groups capability to continually improve quality of care. Based on data from Merritt Hawkins, the chart below breaks down the average revenue a full-time specialized physician brings to a hospital annually as compared to their average salary. What we can learn from this is that the cost of not replacing a provider/addressing the physician shortage, far outweighs the cost of paying for their replacement.
Consistent, High-Quality Patient Care Solutions
The physician shortage is being addressed on many fronts, but there’s no immediate solution on the horizon. This leaves many health care systems and physician groups looking for alternatives to ensure continual coverage and consistent patient care.
Locum tenens can be a valuable resource for addressing the physician shortage with contracted physicians and advance practice providers. Partnering with a locum tenens staffing company helps healthcare organizations to reach a large, diverse pool of providers. It provides solutions that healthcare leaders are looking for when faced with the challenges of the physician shortage. Below are several ways locum tenens can help.
- Specialization is key for finding the highest-quality providers. A locum tenens staffing company has industry experts that understand the day-to-day needs and nuances of the specialty. Concentration within a specific specialty and a deep knowledge of higher acuity specialties provides the depth and breadth of candidates needed to find the best person to fit the needs.
- Self-service staffing is a simple way to work and hire – with or without a recruiter. Digitally enabled recruiting technology enables some locum tenens agencies to expand the pool of qualified candidates. Instead of losing valuable, talented groups like tech-savvy providers coming out residency, job matching engines tap into their desire to search for jobs how and when they want. Likewise, healthcare administrators can work directly with providers, a recruiter or a hybrid of both.
- Credentialing as a fully outsourced service takes care of the entire process. Credentialing can sometimes take months. A locum company can take this off healthcare administrators’ plates. It streamlines the onboarding process and sets the provider and healthcare facility up for success. The locums company builds relationships with the providers, answering questions and ensuring the best experience possible from start to finish.
- Project-based services to stabilize workforce during a transition or significant gap. Coverage gaps happen for many reasons: group staffing changes, bringing a service in-house, backfilling or expansion. A workforce solution can serve as an extension of the team, quickly resolving gaps and helping improve patient approval ratings – consistent staffing reduces wait times and patient frustration.
- Marketing and sourcing support services. By generating an always-on pipeline of fully screened providers, a locum tenens healthcare staffing company tailors their outreach to providers around these specialty’s unique factors and needs.
The physician shortage is creating challenges for healthcare systems now, but this only beginning, and it’s likely only to get worse. Acting now and building relationships with a locum tenens agency will help protect facilities in the face of this growing crisis.