Due to the fast-paced change unique to the healthcare industry and the lead time required to train healthcare professionals, it’s important to stay on top of where the shortfalls are projected in physician specialties. Although such shortages have affected healthcare professionals for decades, the COVID-19 crisis has contributed to increased rates of limited patient access, poorer outcomes, and physician burnout/moral injury.

According to a recent Merrit Hawkins article, “Physician Shortages in Medical Specialties in 2021: An Inside Look,” while Congress recently voted to add graduate medical education funding to last year’s COVID-19 relief package and concurrently support 1,000 new residency slots, this increase will still fall far short of bridging the gap between physician supply and demand.

The most recent projections of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) from June of 2020 estimated shortages between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians by 2033, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care. While these projections were prepared before the COVID-19 crisis, they include lessons learned from the pandemic and the critical shortages of healthcare professionals.

By 2033, the AAMC predicts:

  • A shortage of primary care physicians between 21,400 and 55,200.
  • A shortage across non-primary care specialties between 33,700 and 86,700 physicians.

Population growth and aging are indicated as primary drivers for increasing demand from 2018-2033, with these same indicators pointing to a retiring physician workforce. Further, if underserved populations continue current healthcare usage patterns like populations with fewer barriers to access, demand could rise by an additional 74,100 to 145,500 physicians.

Despite these demands, the essential drivers of physician supply and demand are changing much less dramatically; However, this positive is tempered somewhat by the potential for improving population health that would lead to a larger—and older—population to support.

Besides the need for training more physicians, an AAMC article describes a multipronged approach to address shortages and the resulting gaps in care. This approach includes better use of technology, including telehealth, as well as being able to expand the care that healthcare professionals can provide. Such expansion includes increasing the roles of physician assistants and nurse practitioners and relaxing license requirements to allow more physicians to practice across state lines.