According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. is on track to face a shortfall of up to 121,300 physicians by the year 2030, largely driven by population growth, a greater number of senior citizens who will require healthcare, and the fact that about one-third of all doctors who are currently active will either be retiring in the next 10–15 years, or significantly reducing their workload.
The looming physician shortage — which is already taking root in rural and less populated areas of the country — is a national public health concern and needs to be addressed now vs. later, says James Hauschildt, a non-profit executive who previously served as a clinical nurse in the United States Air Force, and as a higher education executive in healthcare facilities for Allen College and Saint Luke’s College. Mr. Hauschildt has graciously taken the time to provide insight into the three strategies we must explore in order to deal with the pressing physician shortage.
1. Alleviate the Residency Bottleneck
While there are no quick fixes or easy answers, healthcare industry insiders like James Hauschildt believe that the first and most important piece of any strategy to tackle the current and looming physician shortage is to alleviate the residency bottleneck.
We need to get more aspiring physicians out in the field and practicing, instead of facing bottlenecks when they apply for residency programs, comments James Hauschildt. He further explains by stating, in 2017 nearly 36,000 U.S. and international medical school students and graduates were vying for under 32,000 residency positions. We have an excess of talent and yet a scarcity of opportunities, which makes no sense when demand for physicians is constantly rising.
2. Foreign Medical Students
Another widely endorsed strategy involves making it easier for medical students from other countries to practice in the U.S., rather than forcing them to essentially undergo the same residencies and fellowships that they completed in their home country.
The perception that internationally trained physicians are less competent than their U.S.-trained counterparts simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, says James Hauschildt. He further states that in many countries around the world, training and residency requirements are arguably or clearly superior to those in the U.S. What’s more, many internationally trained physicians welcome rather than decry the opportunity to work in rural locations and under-populated, which is where the shortage is most pronounced.
3. Allow Qualified Staff to Perform Nonphysician Tasks/Procedures
A third strategy that has gained traction in recent years, is to allow more, qualified nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform nonphysician tasks, such as diagnosing certain illnesses and injuries, performing examinations, developing treatment plans, and prescribing medication.
The idea here is not for nurse practitioners and physician assistants to replace physicians, but rather to support the overall delivery of healthcare at an accepted, consistent standard, says James Hauschildt.
Education costs are also significantly lower for nonphysician healthcare professionals, which means that more people who want to enter the healthcare space can do so without going deep into debt or waiting several years or even decades before they feel financially stable enough to start a family.
James Hauschildt’s Bottom Line
As noted above, there are no easy answers or quick fixes to deal with the physician shortage — both the dearth that currently exists, and the even more pronounced scarcity that will unfold over the next decade. However, easing the residency bottleneck, enabling more internationally trained and qualified physicians to get their license, and augmenting health care delivery with nurse practitioners and physician assistants are three viable, practical and responsible strategies to put a significant dent in the problem — and keep it from becoming a crisis, or worse, a catastrophe.