We take for granted the fact that we have access to medical professionals almost any time we’re facing an ailment or injury. But according to research from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), we’re beginning to see signs of an impending doctor shortage, in which we don’t have the physicians or resources necessary to adequately address the demands of our population. This may seem like some far-off, distant projection, but there are key areas that are already seeing the effects of shortages, and the problem is projected to escalate to near-epidemic levels as early as 2025.
Primary and Specialty Impact
To make matters worse, the doctor shortage will affect both primary and specialty areas of care. Most medical schools, like Rush University Medical Center, offer many different types of specialty training, but no area of specialty is exempt from the potential fallout of an overall medical professional shortage. This makes it especially hard to address the shortage in a clear, direct way, such as by increasing enrollment efforts.
Factors for the Shortage
Before we can consider potential solutions for the problem, we have to understand the roots. And as the AAMC illustrates, there are many interconnected roots of the problem:
- Higher life expectancies. First, people are living longer lives. This is a good thing, and it’s something we should be proud of as a culture. We have access to better medicine and have more knowledge about how to prolong lifespans, so our elderly populations are rising. Unfortunately, elderly populations require more intensive care, and the increases here are creating more demand for medical professionals to treat those populations.
- Greater treatment options and requirements. The increase in medical technologies and treatments is another positive development that is putting an unfortunate burden on the medical industry. With more potential treatments and more ailments to treat, more doctors are required to dispense these treatments – including new areas of specialty that didn’t exist before.
- More people exiting the workforce. Even though our lifespans are increasing, we generally aren’t working any longer – and that trend applies to doctors as well. Doctors are exiting the workforce at the same rate they always have, making the gap between medical supply and demand even wider.
At first glance, it might seem like the best solution to the problem would be to increase enrollment for medical schools. After all, if we can train more doctors, the shortage should disappear. However, medical school enrollment is at an all-time high, and the projections for the doctor shortage remain. Increasing enrollment alone wont be enough to solve the problem.
How to Fight Back
So how can we fight back against the impending doctor shortage in practical, measurable ways?
- Improving technologies. The first route involves following lines of development that are already in motion. We need to develop new and better technologies that make diagnosis and treatment more manageable and more accessible to populations in need. This may include more automation technology, including robots that are able to execute treatments themselves; it may sound like science fiction, but these medical robots are already in development.
- Relying on team-based care. Another solution is to rely on a more interconnected approach to healthcare. Rather than having one or two individuals responsible for providing medical care, we can split the responsibilities across a greater number of related positions. This could open the door to easier training for certain lower-level positions, increasing the amount of care available to patients, without directly demanding an increase in full-fledged medical doctors.
- Making medical training more accessible. The process to become a medical doctor is intimidating, to say the least, and the unglamorous, demanding lives of doctors make the system even less appealing. We could loosen certain standards or provide alternative routes to becoming a medical professional, or as mentioned in the previous point, establish different tiers of medical practice to increase availability for the general population.
- Increasing federal funding for residencies. Residencies are one of the most vulnerable and intensive periods of training for new doctors. Increasing federal funding for these programs could simultaneously increase enrollment and maximize the speed at which we can get new doctors in the system.
There’s no one absolute or perfect way to combat the growing doctor shortage, just as there’s no single factor responsible for its development in the first place. This is a complex, multifaceted problem, and it requires a complex, multifaceted solution.
However, its complexity is not an excuse to avoid or delay addressing the problem. In fact, the longer we delay resolving it, the worse it’s going to become. We need to be proactive if we want to be successful.