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U.S. could face doctor shortage after the pandemic

A new survey finds 18 percent of doctors plan to stop seeing patients

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Photo (c) Jasminko Ibrakovic - Fotolia
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has placed a massive strain on America’s health care system, and that strain may continue once the virus is under control. In particular, the U.S. may need a lot more doctors.

A survey of physicians conducted by Merritt Hawkins, a physician search firm, in collaboration with The Physicians Foundation, documented the physical and emotional toll treating COVID-19 patients is taking.

While it suggests that a number of post-COVID-19 changes are coming, perhaps the most significant finding is that 18 percent of doctors plan to retire, temporarily close their practices, or opt-out of patient care. The U.S. may need to train more doctors to take their place.

The survey also found the coronavirus has led to a huge increase in the number of physicians who are using telemedicine to treat patients remotely. Nearly half -- 48 percent -- are using video technology now, an increase of only 18 percent before the pandemic began.

Other findings in the survey include:

  • 38 percent of physicians are seeing COVID-19 patients

  • 60 percent of physicians who are not seeing COVID-19 patients are willing to do so

  • 21 percent of physicians have been furloughed or experienced a pay cut

  • 14 percent plan to change practice settings as a result of COVID-19

  • 30 percent who are treating COVID-19 patients are feeling great stress but will continue to see patients

Transformative impact

"The impact on physicians from COVID-19 is going to be transformative," said Travis Singleton, executive vice president of Merritt Hawkins.  "The way patients access physicians and how and where physicians practice will fundamentally change." 

With so many physicians indicating they will either leave medicine or change their practice settings, that could mean rapid change for health care. Singleton says the findings should be of particular concern to U.S. hospitals that are already struggling with physician shortages and rapid turnover.

"Once the pandemic has been contained there will be a backlog of procedures and pervasive COVID-19 testing,” Singleton said. “Physician re-engagement and retention will be of even more importance." 

For patients, it likely means a higher probability that office visits with a doctor will be reduced or eliminated in the future. Singleton says the main takeaway is that telemedicine, widely used during the pandemic, may be much more common in the future.

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