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4 factors that lead to physician shortages


The ongoing healthcare staffing shortage is one of the most pressing issues facing healthcare organizations today. According to research from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the United States may face a shortage of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033.

There are several factors contributing to this projected shortage (and the current shortage), and in this blog, we’ll explore four of them, including:

  1. Shifts in physician and patient populations
  2. Most healthcare workers prefer not to work in rural hospitals 

  3. Medical school and residency programs are limited 

  4. Healthcare workers are burnt out 

Shifts in physician and patient populations

Thanks to advances in medicine, people are living longer overall. As the population continues to age, however, more patients over 65 will need healthcare to manage chronic conditions over a longer period of time than previous generations. As a result, demand for geriatricians and other specialists is likely to rise and may mean there are fewer general care doctors available to serve the rest of the population.   

As the general population ages, however, so does the healthcare workforce.

According to Definitive Healthcare data, many physicians across several healthcare specialties are on the verge of retirement or will be near that age soon. In fact, research from the AAMC found that nearly 45% of doctors are older than age 55, and more than 40% of active physicians will be 65 or older in the next ten years.

A wave of retirement can be especially detrimental to the workers left behind. Younger, inexperienced healthcare professionals may miss out on developing crucial skills from their veteran colleagues. This is known as a “knowledge deficit” and can lead to the provision of lower-quality healthcare services, increased medical errors and readmissions, and more.

Most healthcare workers prefer not to work in rural hospitals

Rural areas have a long history of being underserved by the healthcare industry. Statistically, rural areas tend to have fewer physicians, nurses, specialists, and other healthcare workers. People living there are also more likely to be older, less affluent, less well-insured, and sicker than people in urban communities. Unfortunately, the staffing shortage might only amplify these poor circumstances.

The hard truth of the situation is that rural hospitals can’t offer the same salaries, hours, and working conditions that larger, wealthier hospitals in urban areas can. While urban hospitals are able to lure healthcare workers with hefty bonuses, rural hospitals are struggling to compete.

The shift in traveling nurses is emblematic of this problem. According to surveys from the Chartis Group, many nurses are leaving positions at rural hospitals in favor of positions that offer higher pay, flexible hours, and better locations to work and live.

Medical school and residency programs are limited

Because medical school and physician training can take a decade or longer, a provider shortage projected in 2033 is a problem that needs to be addressed now.

And while there might not be any concrete ways to fast-track the process of becoming a doctor, medical schools can work to manage the staffing shortage by increasing enrollment and acceptance of first-year students.

According to the AAMC, progress on this front has slowly been made since 2002, as medical schools have increased their enrollments by 35%. Despite this improvement, acceptance rates remain drastically low. For example, selective schools like Harvard accepted only 3.3% of applications in 2021. The average medical school in the U.S. stands with only a 7% acceptance rate.

Simply expanding first-year class sizes won’t be enough. Once a med student graduates, they must undergo further training to be licensed to practice independently. The majority of these programs are funded through the HHS and are called Graduate Medical Education (GME). The existence of GME positions helps ensure that future medicine is in capable hands, as many of these positions serve at teaching hospitals and in rural areas that have historically been underserved.

At the moment, the number of GME positions is capped by Medicare. But there may be a shift underway. In 2021, the Consolidated Appropriations Act was passed, which will provide 1,000 new Medicare-supported GME positions. However, more work will need to be done.  

Healthcare workers are burnt out 

Even before COVID-19, health systems and hospitals faced widespread staffing shortages. But the pandemic pushed many healthcare providers to the point of feeling burnt out. 

Physician burnout is a feeling of long-term emotional exhaustion. The AHRQ says this can damage morale, cause healthcare professionals to quit practicing medicine, and even lead to depression, alcohol abuse, and thoughts of suicide

Three of the biggest reasons why healthcare professionals are burning out are:  

  1. Too many administrative tasks: Many physicians report feeling their time could be better spent treating patients over charting, documenting, and dealing with reports.  

  2. Poor work-life balance: The average physician works a 51 – 60 hour work week, which can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining, potentially leading to medical errors and poor patient outcomes.  

  3. Insufficient salary: Of course, feeling that you’re not being paid enough can be a significant contributor to burnout. While many physicians feel their current salary is insufficient, data from the Medicare Cost Report indicates that salaries have increased year-over-year since 2016. This could indicate that the salaries of only certain physician specialties grew over time.  

Learn more

Is physician staffing top-of-mind for your organization? Then check out our webinar on identifying hard to find candidates in a physician shortage. Our speakers share the tips, tricks, and strategies you can use to find and place the right healthcare workers faster.

Healthcare commercial intelligence can help hospitals and other healthcare organizations make strategic decisions on hiring, recruiting and technology to address and reduce the costly impact of the staffing shortage. Interested in learning more? Start a free trial today.

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Definitive Healthcare

This blog was written by a former contributor at Definitive Healthcare. At Definitive Healthcare, our passion is to transform data, analytics and expertise into healthcare…

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