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 A Look at U.S. Physician Supply and Demand Trends

After putting considerable time, energy and money into medical training, new physicians would like to think that there will be job opportunities awaiting them at the end of the tunnel.

Do physicians in all specialties stand a reasonable chance of obtaining a job? Should medical students select particular specialties in the belief that jobs in those specialties will be plentiful when their training is done?

A complete answer to these questions requires a look at current trends affecting physician supply and demand in the United States. The short answer, however, is that jobs in virtually all medical specialties should remain abundant for the foreseeable future. Indeed, physicians are likely to be in short supply in most specialties and will have a variety of opportunities to select from.

Following is an outline of several trends explaining why.

A SPIKE IN DEMAND

Demographic Changes:

Demand for physicians is being driven in part by demographic changes, particularly the rapid aging of the U.S. population. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the number of people 65 years old and older will grow 53 percent by 2020. People in this demographic segment will comprise 20 percent of the total population in less than a decades, up from 13 percent in 2000. Overall, people in the "senior citizen" demographic category represent the fastest growing part of the population. Significantly, older people utilize medical services at as much as three times the rate of younger people (see Table 1).

TABLE 1

Annual Physician Visits by Patient Age
 
Annual Visits 2.0 1.5 2.2 3.4 5.4 6.6
Years 0-15 16-24 25-35 36-45 46-65 66 or older

Source: National Ambulatory Health Care Administration

In addition, older people utilize diagnostic tests such as medical imaging at a much higher rate than younger people. A National Imaging Associates study shows that patient utilization of x-rays triples after age 65.

Older patients require a proportionally higher volume of specialty services, providing a powerful impetus for the current and projected shortage of medical specialists. The American College of Cardiology has predicted that the need for cardiologists will increase 66 percent by 2030, while the number of cardiologists will only increase by 1 percent a year. The Journal of the American Medical Association has projected that the demand for pulmonary and critical care services will increase by 66 percent by 2030, while the number of pulmonologists will decline.

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