Long hours, long lines of patients and mountains of stress. Many physicians remember the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic that way and never want to experience them again.
As a result, many senior physicians are considering early retirement, a trend that may seriously undermine the physician population, according to Gerald E. Harmon, MD, a former AMA president.
Dr. Harmon was recently appointed interim dean of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia, South Carolina, and previously spent 35 years as a practicing family physician, assistant surgeon general for the U.S. Air Force and chief physician for the National Guard Bureau.
Dr. Harmon discussed the roles that senior physicians and staff can play in the future to meet the needs of underserved patients and to help educate a new generation of medical practitioners in a recent episode of “AMA Update.”
“We have data that started midpandemic, probably the 2021–2022 data surveys, that showed that 20%—one out of five physicians—had said they're going to retire. They're going to retire in the next 24 months,” he said.
“We've seen it among other health care professionals, nurses particularly,” he added.
About 40% of nurses also said they plan to step down from their clinical role in the next two years.
“In the next decade, America's patients are going to age into ages 65 or older,” he said, “of which 34% now need doctor care. And as many as 42% to 45% in the next decade are going to need medical care. These aging patients require a higher acuity of care, many of them are in rural areas, already underpopulated.”
The physicians that are aging out and retiring from the workforce do not leave a legion of physicians to replace them, he noted.
“Our hospital system in rural America already is stretched by not enough ultrasound technicians, not enough X-ray technicians, not enough laboratory technicians. Every health care system in America is already stretched because of a shortage of the entire spectrum of health care workers.”
“It's not only a perfect storm for the future. We're in the storm right now,” Dr. Harmon said.
Rural areas are particularly vulnerable, he said. “We're not seeing a growing population of health care workers going into those areas.”
Older physicians could be very valuable—because of their age and their life experience. “They'll at least be empathetic, if not sympathetic to the patients that come in. Just as we talk about Americans 65 and older representing 42% of the population, that demographic is reflected in the physician workforce with 42% to 45% of physicians also ages 65 or more.
“So, they'll have the same lived experiences,” and can recognize common illnesses of aging, Dr. Harmon added.
“Physicians in my age group can even make a diagnosis without some of the technology. I don't necessarily have to do an MRI, or a PET scan or any kind of laboratory tests [for some cases]. I have a mental index that I can help apply real human intelligence, not artificial intelligence, to the diagnosis. So, I don't need to do all this testing. And I can be more efficient up front with diagnosing and treating and reassuring that aging population,” he said.
Even physicians who retire from regular practice can contribute, he said. “You can still volunteer. You have a wealth of experience. You have decades, typically, of experience. You have a skill set that's impossible to reproduce. That's the reason we're worried about the shortage of physicians. It takes a decade or more to train physicians to become competent.”
“So, apply it in a volunteer organization. Work in extended care facilities. Work in school-based clinics. Work in free clinics,” he said.
Dr. Harmon is also a member of the AMA Senior Physicians Section, which gives voice to and advocates on issues that impact senior physicians, who may be working full time or part time or be retired.
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