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Feature Primary Care

The primary care physician shortage

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 04 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6559
  1. Suzy Frisch, freelance journalist
  1. 1Minneapolis, Minnesota
  1. suzyfrisch{at}

The United States will not have enough doctors, especially in primary care, to treat an increasingly aging population. Suzy Frisch looks at the emerging time bomb

Healthcare experts have long predicted that the United States will face a shortage of physicians, and they were not crying wolf. A perfect storm of demographics is brewing to make the dearth of doctors—especially primary care physicians—a looming reality.

First off, a tsunami of baby boomers is turning 65 and becoming eligible for Medicare. By 2030, people 65 and older will be more than 75 million strong, comprising nearly one third of the population. Compounding the problem, about 33% of physicians in the US are boomers themselves, and many will retire in the next decade, says Christiane Mitchell, director of federal affairs for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

The last straw might be more than 32 million US citizens who will gain access to health insurance in 2014, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Many have gone without healthcare for years, and they will have a pent-up demand for services. Where will they turn to first for medical care? Often to primary care physicians, if they can find one who is still taking new patients.

All told the US will face a shortage of 91 000 doctors in the next 10 years—45 000 primary care physicians and 46 000 surgeons and medical specialists. By 2025 the US will come up 130 000 doctors short, reports the AAMC.

“Baby boomers entering Medicare in record numbers are a major force. When you enter the program you are older and far more likely to use healthcare services than any other age group,” says Mitchell. “It was only exacerbated by the Affordable Care Act coverage expansion. A lot of people are coming into the system for the first time, and …

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