It’s not just primary care doctors that are in short supply, specialists are too

The country has more to worry about than a shortage of primary care doctors. The emerging shortage extends to physician specialists required to care for the aging bones, hearts, lungs and psyches of older Americans, even as these doctors age out of the workforce themselves, a new white paper contends.

The white paper (PDF) concludes that many types of surgical, diagnostic and internal medicine specialists will soon be in as short supply as primary care doctors are.

While the shortage of primary care physicians has been widely acknowledged, the growing shortage of medical specialists in the U.S. is often overlooked, according to the report produced by Merritt Hawkins, a physician search firm.

“The notion that we should be training more primary care physicians while maintaining or reducing the supply of specialists is a grave miscalculation. We should be training more of both types of physicians,” Mark Smith, president of Merritt Hawkins, said in an announcement (PDF).

The aging population will have a dramatic effect on the demand for medical specialists, including cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, rheumatologists, pulmonologists, vascular surgeons and many others to care for the declining health and bodies of elderly patients, the paper’s authors said.

Seniors 65 or older comprise 14% of the population but account for 34% of inpatient procedures and 37.4% of diagnostic treatments and tests, the paper said.

Specialist physicians are, on average, generally older than their primary care counterparts, and a wave of specialist retirements is imminent. And in certain medical specialties, including vascular surgery, there are only a few thousand physicians, while there are tens of millions of patients with the conditions they treat, Smith said.

The company’s research indicates that 80% of specialists currently are overextended or at capacity, and only 20% have time to see more patients or take on new duties.

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An earlier Merritt Hawkins survey found the time it takes to schedule appointments with medical specialists such as cardiologists, dermatologists, orthopedic surgeons and obstetricians/gynecologists increased significantly since 2014.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in 2017 projected a shortage of up to 104,900 physicians in the U.S. by 2030. While that projection included a shortage of up to 43,100 primary care physicians, the AAMC projected an even larger deficit of up to 61,800 specialist physicians.

Shortages are already being felt in rural areas of the country.