13% of patients live in an area affected by the primary care shortage

The primary care physician can be a critical factor in a patient’s healthcare outcomes. Playing a major role in patient care, the primary care physician is focused on well care, prevention, and early detection, monitoring a patient’s signs and symptoms and managing potentially adverse health conditions. Acting as a medical home for the patient, the primary care physician can take the lead in coordinating care, eliminating medication duplications, and reducing unnecessary tests and hospitalizations.

However, there is a growing shortage of primary care physicians across the country. A report published by UnitedHealth Group, “Addressing the Nation’s Primary Care Shortage: Advanced Practice Clinicians and Innovative Care Delivery Models,” shows that the shortage affects patients across both urban and rural areas. Statistics around the gaps in primary care access include:

  • Thirteen percent of U.S. residents (44 million) live in a county with a primary care physician shortage, defined as less than one primary care physician per 2,000 people.
  • Rural residents are almost five times as likely to live in a county with a primary care physician shortage compared to urban and suburban residents (38 percent vs. 8 percent).
  • Nearly as many urban and suburban residents live in a county with a primary care physician shortage as rural residents (21 million vs. 23 million).

The root of the shortage appears to lie in the career choices made by medical school graduates. The report states that in 2017, “only one in six medical school graduates – 5,000 out of 30,000 – selected a primary care residency program.” Primary care physicians who are currently practicing are aging out. According to the report, “over one-third of all physicians practicing today will be 65 or older by 2030.”

As the general population also ages, the demand for healthcare services will increase. The estimated shortage of primary care physicians could grow from 18,000 in 2018 to 49,000 in 2030, so the solution may be in nurse practitioners (NPs), physician assistants (PAs), and certified nurse midwives (CNMs), who “represent a growing part of the nation’s primary care workforce.”