Struggling To Find a Primary Care Physician? There May Be Good Reason for That

As we all know, finding a primary care physician you can trust is a vital part of taking charge of yours and your family’s health and medical care. According to a report produced by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2021, “an increased supply of Primary Care Physicians or PCP’s is associated with better population health and more equitable outcomes.” Unfortunately, in the last two years, individuals and families alike have been struggling to find primary care physicians to suit their healthcare needs, causing many people to postpone or forego their regular health checkups. While this is certainly a troubling trend, every problem has its causes which means there are also solutions. So why is it so hard to find a primary care physician right now? That can be explained by several key factors.

COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on the world as a whole as well as how we live our lives day by day. Unfortunately, one of the many lasting effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been an increase in burnout among our nations healthcare workers such as Doctors and Nurses. Burnout is one of the largest causes of physicians retiring prematurely or seeking less stressful professions. This phenomenon is described as a mental health syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by several key symptoms: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. As a result of this phenomenon, the U.S. is expected to face a shortage of primary care physicians ranging from 21,000 to 55,000 by the year 2033 according to Harvard Medical School. However, despite the undeniable effect burnout has had on healthcare workers, this current shortage of PCP’s was brewing long before COVID.

In addition to burnout from the added stress the pandemic placed on our healthcare infrastructure over the past several years, several other factors are driving up turnover rates for PCP’s. One of these being the simple fact that both patients and doctors on average are getting older. Now obviously aging is something we all have to deal with, however the issue is that there is a lack of young physicians entering the PCP field in order to replace older physicians. This creates a scenario where aging patients require more and more medical attention but have less PCP’s to choose from as more and more of them retire heading into their ’60s. According to estimates from the Association of American Medical Colleges, “more than 40% of active physicians in the United States will be 65 or older within the next decade”. Considering that the majority of doctors seek retirement before hitting their ’70’s, this statistic is certainly cause for concern. While these numbers have serious implications for the future supply of experienced primary care physicians, we are already seeing the effects of having a lack of young PCP’s is having.

So why are there less young primary care physicians entering the healthcare field? The answer lies in how the role of PCP’s has shifted over the years. Since COVID pandemic began, primary care has been getting hit harder than most medical specialties. In an increasingly overloaded healthcare system, primary care physicians are being asked to work longer hours, see more patients, and devote more time to electronic record keeping, all while their salaries and benefits have steadily declined in comparison to other medical specialties. In a study conducted by InCrowd, Inc., a trusted market research firm, a staggering 79% of PCP’s reported feeling overworked and burned out. As a result of this common dissatisfaction, turnover rates for the primary care field have been at an all time high, only worsening the primary care physician supply issues. To make matters worse, the overall lack of available PCP’s has created a vicious feedback cycle where many patients have additional unaddressed issues they haven’t had treated due to waiting extended periods of time between check ups. Unfortunately, this simply adds more stress and work to an already overworked, stressed, and dwindling primary care physician field.

Although it is easy to view this situation with nothing be pessimism, there is also room for hope. The healthcare field can correct this issue by eliminating the pay disparities between PCP’s and other medical specialists which would not only reduce existing turnover, but also help recruit more trainees into the primary care field. Additionally, increasing administrative support and correcting work flow redundancies can also help take some of the burn out away from PCP’s. From a patient standpoint, you can take action in finding a new PCP by asking the practice you currently visit to assign you a new one or asking your old PCP if they know any other’s they would recommend. If neither of those strategies prove to be fruitful, asking your network of friends and family for recommendations is also a very good way to find a physician that’s right for you. Patients and primary care physicians equally need each other so it is vital we all work together to adapt to these changing circumstances in every way we can as we all try to cope with the changing landscape of our healthcare system post COVID.

Sources:

Peter Grinspoon, M. D. (2022, September 28). Why is it so challenging to find a primary care physician? Harvard Health. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-is-it-so-challenging-to-find-a-primary-care-physician-202209282822

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Burn-out an “Occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

Nationalacademies.org. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/implementing-high-quality-primary-care

Boyle, P., & Writer, S. S. (2021, June 11). Aging patients and doctors drive nation’s physician shortage. AAMC. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/aging-patients-and-doctors-drive-nation-s-physician-shortage

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