The American medical profession is aging. One in four US physicians is over 65 years of age and those between 65 and 75 constitute about 11 percent of the active medical labor force. In addition, writes Amy McCullough on the Society for Vascular Surgery website, “many physicians over the age of 56 indicate plans to retire in the next 1-3 years due, in part, to the changes in the health care delivery system, decline in reimbursement, increased regulatory compliance and implementation of electronic medical records and other technologies.”
A Look at the Labor Force
The aging of physicians and their exit from the profession underline concerns about a projected shortage of physicians in the United States. A 2018 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated the country could see a shortfall of up to 121,000 physicians by 2030, driven by multiple factors including increased demand due to the aging of the general population—and reduced supply because of the aging of the physicians themselves. The shortage threatens at a time when the US population is both growing and aging at the same time—emphasizing the need for more practitioners to support health at all points on the lifespan.
These factors emphasize the importance of not only sustaining the current increase in medical school enrollments, but also making the most of our active physicians as they grow older. Organizations should look at whether they are providing enough flexibility in areas like call schedules and patient loads to accommodate the desires of many older physicians for reduced roles short of retirement.
Concerns about the cognitive and physical competence of older physicians have led to controversial mandatory testing initiatives.
But the looming shortage of labor suggests creative thinking about making the best use of older physicians is equally important. We have some concrete suggestions in our article, “The Challenges and Opportunities of the Aging Population.”
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