By Peg Ventricelli
Within the next decade, the United States will experience a shortfall of 35,680 primary care physicians, according to a 2016 report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The new research confirms findings from a 2015 study by IHS, which revealed that the number of new primary care physicians is not keeping pace with the healthcare demands of a growing aging population.
This will present a significant challenge to healthcare providers charged with delivering quality patient care in the future. AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, M.D., noted that the physician workforce is aging along with the U.S. citizenry, with one-third of physicians now over the age of 55. As they retire, their ranks will not be filled by younger doctors in anywhere near a 1-to-1 ratio. “The nation must begin to train more doctors now if patients are going to be able to receive the care they need,” he warned.
Some measures are being taken to surmount the challenge presented by the physician shortage. Medical schools, for example, have done their part to increase the overall number of physicians by expanding class sizes. Congress is also being asked to approve a modest increase in federal spending to support an additional 3,000 residency positions a year over the next five years.
Yet, the AAMC also hopes to “cure” the shortage with innovations in healthcare delivery and better use of technology.
As an example, consider the greater number of patients who could gain access to healthcare providers if electronic communications channels—phone, email, text and video conferencing—were opened or more easily used in such interactions. The predominant and archaic face-to-face visits of today frequently waste patient and healthcare system resources. Maybe what the shortage calls for is not just more doctors but more interactive technology solutions.
Using telemedicine to address the physician shortage
IT experts can help healthcare providers use technological innovations to virtually reduce the very real physical distance between doctors and patients that is likely to arise from the looming physician shortage. Telemedicine—the use of telecommunications technologies to provide medical information and services—is one such innovation growing in popularity across America.
For example, doctors are using telemedicine—in this case their own smartphones—to instantly view EKGs instead of waiting for a fax. Patients living in rural areas, which are typically underserved by the healthcare industry, may be the primary beneficiaries of telehealth services. Setting up a telemedicine system to bridge long distances can be as simple as mounting video conferencing equipment on a wheeled cart and applying WebRTC tools. The technologies used are becoming more ubiquitous and easy to use every day, to the point where almost any IT technician can show you how to use them.
WebRTC technology—which enables real-time communications in Web browsers—is also helping hospitals alleviate staffing gaps. In any situation where travel causes a hardship for patients or healthcare providers, or where data sharing in real time is critical, WebRTC can be put to work. The WebRTC standard defines how applications can share encrypted video, audio, chat and data via peer-to-peer connections. As a result, it’s reduced the amount of effort needed to communication-enable telemedicine applications with features like video calls, chat, file transfer and desktop sharing.
Maybe the time to address the upcoming physician shortage is now—before it begins to negatively impact patient care.
AAMC.org, “New Research Confirms Looming Physician Shortage,” April 5, 2016, retrieved from the Association of American Medical Colleges
AAMC.org, “The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2013 to 2025,” March 2015, retrieved from: The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2013 to 2025