Just as I finally found a primary care doctor I liked and settled into an annual checkup routine, I was shocked to receive a letter announcing that she was retiring this fall.
So here we go again: researching doctors, asking for recommendations and calling practices to see which primary care physicians are accepting new patients. Many are not.
If it feels like there is a shortage of primary care doctors, experts confirm that’s exactly the case and it’s only expected to worsen.
“We have a crisis in primary care. There’s no question,” Dr. Russ Phillips, director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care in Boston, tells TODAY.com.
“It’s a huge issue that translates into shorter lives… it’s really frustrating.”
The Association of American Medical Colleges projects a primary care physician shortage of up to 55,000 doctors within the next decade in the U.S.
It doesn’t even have to take a retirement to force you to look for a new doctor. If you already have a provider but haven’t booked a visit in a while, you may be in for a surprise. Some practices will purge patients from their roster if they haven’t made an appointment in a few years and then “may just not have the flexibility to take them on again,” Phillips says.
Why is there a primary care doctor shortage?
A full-time primary care physician typically cares for up to 2,400 patients, Phillips says. The work requires an ever-growing list of recommended screenings and checks.
“A recent study showed that to do all the work required of primary care takes 26 hours a day and as you can imagine, that makes for a very hard job,” he notes. It leaves some doctors struggling or leaving the profession.
The huge workload also includes updating patients’ electronic health records, with doctors now spending half their time doing administrative work as opposed to actively seeing their patients, Dr. Sterling Ransone, Jr., a family physician in Deltaville, Virginia, and chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians, tells TODAY.com.
“Taking that time away from our patients for a lot of physicians has been really frustrating and it also is contributing to some of the burnout that we’re seeing,” Ransone says.
“The only way to put any constraints on the amount of work one needs to do is to limit the size of the practice, so (doctors) try to do that by limiting access to new patients,” Phillips adds. His practice has been closed to new patients at times because of the pent up demand for appointments over the past year or so.
Wave of retirements:
The primary care physician workforce has gradually been getting older and many doctors are nearing retirement age, Phillips says. At the same time, the overall U.S. population is also getting older — with more people over 65 living in the U.S. than kids by 2034, according to the Census Bureau — which means patients need more medical care.
“Due to the nature of the work, and especially to the extent it’s been worsened by COVID, it has led to more retirements and earlier retirements as well,” he notes.
Not enough younger doctors to replace retiring physicians:
In addition to the huge workload and high stress levels, primary care is the one of the lowest paid specialties, Phillips says. That means not enough younger doctors in the pipeline are choosing to become family physicians.
“Many of our students these days are looking for jobs that are more constrained where they can potentially leave their work behind them at night when they go home. And it’s very difficult to do that with the way primary care is constructed,” he notes.
Doctors fleeing to concierge medicine:
It means taking care of a much smaller roster of patients — perhaps 400 per doctor in concierge care vs. 2,400 in a typical practice. When a doctor makes that move, hundreds of their previous patients are left without a physician.
How to find a primary care doctor:
It’s important to have a primary care physician you can trust and develop a relationship with not only for “first contact care,” such as treatment for a sore throat or back pain; but also preventive care and continuity of care, Phillips says.
“It does translate into better life expectancy over the long term,” he adds. “(Patients) are generally more likely to get their evidence-based screenings done like colonoscopies and mammograms — things that have been shown to prolong life.”
He offered these tips to find a new doctor:
- If your doctor is retiring, ask the practice to assign you to another doctor in the same office. They’re not obligated to place you and the other doctors may not have the capacity to absorb all patients, but it’s a possibility.
- If you’ve been dropped by your practice because you haven’t made an appointment in a few years, try to reach out to your doctor directly. Phillips has never turned down a patient who wants to come back and lets him know — even though the main office may have him officially listed as not accepting new patients.
- If you are getting care from a cardiologist, dermatologist or other specialty physician, ask them for a recommendation or to refer you to a primary care physician.
- Call the local hospital. They may be able to tell you which doctors have just come on board and are accepting new patients.