Health Equity

For growing number of doctors, life in medicine extends into 70s

Andis Robeznieks , Senior News Writer

Every year, a new record is set for medical school enrollment. But despite this influx of new doctors, the U.S. physician work-force continues to trend older.

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There were 985,000 licensed physicians in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards’ (FSMB) biennial census, which notes that their average age has risen to 51.5 years from 50.7 in 2010. But that number seems to understate the trend.

The census also reports that the number of licensed physicians between 60 and 69 years old grew to almost 192,000 (19.5%) in 2018, up 38% from the 139,000 doctors in their 60s in 2010. Also, the number of licensed physicians 70 and older grew to more than 106,000 (10.8%) in 2018. That’s nearly a 40% jump from the 2010 figure of 76,000.

Meanwhile, 37% of male licensed physicians were 60 years of age or older, compared with only 17% of female doctors.

If physician supply stays the same, the U.S. is expected to experience a shortage of 124,000 full-time physicians by 2025, and—even if medical schools increase enrollment—it will not be sufficient to meet future demand, the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Center for Workforce Studies projects.

The health care delivery system is undergoing significant changes that will carry implications for senior physicians and their ability to stay in practice and play a crucial role in filling this gap. The AMA Senior Physicians Section can help extend physicians’ careers in clinical medicine and, in many cases, facilitate reentry into medical practice.

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Barbara Hummel, MD, a solo family physician in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield, Wisconsin, has been practicing medicine since 1991. And the 75-year-old has no plans to stop.

“I like what I do, and I like my patients,” she said. “I don’t like the paperwork and I don’t like the bureaucracy, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

She is still getting one to two new patients a week and just recently welcomed back a family she had not seen for eight years.

“I do have quite a few older patients because they’ve aged with me,” Dr. Hummel said. “I’m not delivering babies anymore, but I see the children of children I’ve delivered—and that’s always fun.”

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The aging of the physician workforce is particularly acute in rural areas, according to a “Implications of an Aging Rural Physician Workforce,” a recent report in The New England Journal of Medicine.

While the number of rural physicians grew about 3% between 2000 and 2017, the number of physicians under 50 fell by 25%, from 39,200 to 29,600. The number of physicians 60 and older more than doubled, according to the report.

Dr. Hummel said older physicians in rural areas need social, physical and psychological support from their peers and colleagues. This includes filling in so they can take time off, and recognizing that they are at the age where people in their social network may be dying or their family may be dispersing as children or grandchildren move away.

“I can’t see just putting us out to pasture,” she said, noting that working with medical students and residents helps keep her sharp.

“That's one of the reasons why I’m capable of staying in practice,” Dr. Hummel said. “When you quit learning, then it’s time to think about retiring.”

She added that it is often a matter of recognizing and adjusting to new limitations.

“I know my balance isn’t what it was,” Dr. Hummel said. “But with a cane, it’s hard for people to keep up with me. It’s like, ‘Watch my dust!’”