Get the Facts: The Physician Shortage

Posted on: January 06, 2014

written by

Barton Team

FACT: The United States faces a shortage of more than 90,000 physicians by 2020 — a number that will grow to more than 130,000 by 2025.1

Chances are, your organization has already felt the effects of the physician shortage — and if it hasn’t, it will.

As demand for the limited supply of physicians increases, practices, hospitals, and other healthcare organizations will find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain quality physicians. This will negatively affect quality and continuity of care, work-life balance for existing staff, the organization’s capacity to see patients, and, ultimately, the bottom line.

The ongoing physician shortage presents a serious problem, and it’s one that cannot easily be fixed. Before we get into how healthcare organizations can limit the effects of this physician shortage, let’s take a deeper look at its causes.

Shrinking Supply, Growing Demand

The simple rule of supply and demand is driving the physician shortage. When it comes to supply, the existing physician workforce is shrinking.

FACT: One-third of practicing physicians in the United States is over age 55, and many of these doctors are expected to retire within the next 10–15 years.2

FACT: Six in 10 physicians say it is likely many will retire in the next 1–3 years — that is, earlier than planned.3

At the same time, demand for physician services is increasing. The patient population is aging, and older Americans as a whole require more medical services than the general population.

FACT: By age 65, around two-thirds of all seniors have at least one chronic disease and see seven physicians.4

FACT: However, 20 percent of people older than 65 have five or more chronic diseases, see 14+ physicians, and average 40 doctor visits per year.4

FACT: More than 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day.5

Further adding to the demand for physician services is the growing number of insured Americans who have entered the system via the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

FACT: As of early 2016, about 20 million previously uninsured Americans had gained health insurance coverage thanks to the ACA.6

FACT: By 2022, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the ACA will have extended coverage to 33 million Americans who would otherwise be uninsured.7

Reinforcements Aren’t Coming Fast Enough

The educational community is doing its best to produce more physicians by increasing medical school enrollment and graduating more students.

FACT: U.S. medical schools are on track to increase enrollment 30 percent by 2017.8

However, the number of new doctors is limited by the number of Medicare-sponsored residency slots available to graduating medical students. We could soon be in a situation where there are not enough residency slots for all the medical school graduates.

FACT: The number of Medicare-sponsored residency slots has been capped since 1997.9

It is easy to see why the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects a shortage of physicians in the foreseeable future. Any one of these factors (a decreasing physician workforce, an aging patient population, an increase in insured patients, and limits on the number of new doctors) by itself would create a shortage, but the combination has caused a full-blown crisis.

Feeling the Effects

Physicians make healthcare organizations money. The care they provide translates into billable services that contribute to the organization’s revenue stream.

FACT: The average physician generates $1.4 million in annual revenue for a healthcare organization.10

Organizations operating at reduced capacity because of a lack of physician resources risk significant revenue loss. This can send ripples throughout the organization, negatively affecting patient satisfaction, quality of care, and employees’ ability to establish and maintain work-life balance.

For example, being short a single primary-care physician can translate into longer appointment wait times for patients. This often results in patients choosing an alternate organization for their medical care, potentially resulting in lost revenue for the life span of each dissatisfied patient. This scenario applies to all medical specialties and keeps many healthcare leaders up at night.

Furthermore, short-staffed organizations often compensate by requiring existing providers to pick up extra shifts. While this is a viable short-term solution, it can lead to physician burnout if it continues for an extended period. This can create negative consequences across all medical specialties.

Take hospitalists, for example:

  • Forty percent of hospitalists reported exceeding their safe workload at least once per month.11

  • Twenty percent of hospitalists said large workloads likely contribute to patient transfers, morbidity, and even mortality.11

With Medicare’s continued move to a pay-for-performance model, poor patient-satisfaction scores and care quality can further erode an organization’s bottom line.

FACT: Medicare pays bonuses to hospitals with high patient-satisfaction scores and reduces payments to hospitals with low ones.12

The physician shortage has made staffing very difficult for many organizations. With such a limited pool from which to choose, many organizations report that it is taking longer than ever to hire permanent physicians.

Organizations in rural areas are having a particularly hard time attracting quality providers because so few physicians live in rural areas.

FACT: Nearly 25 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but only about 10 percent of physicians practice there.13

Getting Flexible

Healthcare organizations can’t afford to wait for their next permanent physician, yet the recruiting process can take up to a year or longer. Some organizations in rural areas may never find a permanent provider. Each day an organization is without a physician, it misses out on thousands of dollars in billable services.

Locum tenens physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants are an effective solution for short-staffed organizations. Services that locum tenens healthcare professionals provide are billable and can keep your organization’s revenue streams open while you search for a permanent employee. They also give hospitals, practices, and other organizations the flexibility needed to adjust to patient demand without overhead.

FACT: In 2012, 74 percent of healthcare organizations used locum tenens providers to supplement their existing staff.

FACT: Also in 2012, 57 percent of healthcare organizations used locum tenens providers to maintain services while they worked on filling open permanent positions.

In fact, many healthcare organizations rely on locum tenens providers on an ongoing basis to maximize capacity, quality and continuity of care, and revenue generation.

FACT: In 2012, 56 percent of healthcare organizations used one or more locum tenens physicians in a typical month.

FACT: Locum tenens assignments can range from a few shifts to ongoing engagements that last for more than a year.

How Can Barton Help?

Whether you need long-term support, short-term vacation coverage, immediate coverage because of an unplanned absence, or anything in between, the locum tenens physician, dentist, physician assistant, and nurse practitioner staffing experts at Barton Associates are here to help.

Take advantage of industry-leading national locum tenens staffing:

  • Get Access to the Best Talent in the Industry
    Our experienced recruiting team conducts thorough interviews and reference checks to ensure that we have the best network of locum tenens physicians, dentists, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners.

  • Never Worry About Sudden Vacancies Again
    Barton’s locum tenens providers can fill your facility's needs for any position, and can be available within 24 hours for openings ranging from a few days to six months or longer!

  • Learn About Flexible Solutions That Help Your Organization Thrive
    No matter how your staffing outlook changes, Barton Associates has invested significantly in technology, operations, and marketing to ensure we’re able to handle any challenge our clients face.

  • Leave the Complexities of Hiring to Us
    From securing the perfect candidate to credentialing and travel-related issues, our extensive operations team handles the entire locum tenens staffing process for you, ensuring a smooth and stress-free experience.

Dedicating one account manager to each of our client accounts means we’re building the strongest possible relationship to ensure your talent needs are met. That commitment to building personal partnerships is the anchor of our “1:1 Approach” strategy, which has helped make us a leader in the locum tenens space for almost 20 years.


1 “GME Funding: How to Fix the Doctor Shortage,” Association of American Medical Colleges, September 27, 2016,

2 “Will There Be Enough Doctors?” HealthLeaders Magazine, October 1, 2007,

3 “Survey of U.S. Physicians,” Deloitte, 2013,  

4 ”Baby Boomers Retire, Pew Research Center, December 29, 2010,

5 Ardis Dee Hoven, MD, “Coping with baby boomers, and staggering statistics,” American Medical News, September 20, 2010,

6  “FACT SHEET: The Affordable Care Act: Healthy Communities Six Years Later,” The White House, March 2, 2016,

7 “CBO and JCT’s Estimates of the Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Number of People Obtaining Employment-Based Health Insurance,” Congressional Budget Office, March 2012,

8 “Medical School Enrollment on Pace to Reach 30 Percent Increase by 2017,” Association of American Medical Colleges, May 2, 2013,

9 “Medicare Resident Limits ("Caps"),” Association of American Medical Colleges,

10 “2013 Physician Inpatient/Outpatient Revenue Survey,” Merritt Hawkins, 2013,

11 Liselotte N. Dyrbye, MD, MHPE, and Tait D. Shanafelt, MD, “Physician Burnout: A Potential Threat to Successful Health Care Reform,” JAMA Network, May 18, 2011,

12 “Hospital Quality Initiative,” Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, April 10, 2013,

13 “Rural Healthy People 2010: A Companion Document to Healthy People 2010,” Southwest Rural Health Research Center, 2010,

About Barton Team

We're Barton Associates, the Locum Tenens Experts. We work with thousands of hospitals, medical practices, and organizations across the United States and its territories that need talented providers for short- and long-term engagements. Inspired by the pioneering, humanitarian work of Clara Barton, the Barton Team recruits physicians, PAs, NPs, dentists and CRNAs in a wide variety of specialties, so that we can quickly place them in locum tenens assignments nationwide.

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