Your doctor's in shape… but may just be getting in shape to retire

U.S. doctors as a group are “leaner, fitter and live longer than average Americans… male physicians keep their cholesterol and blood pressure lower… women doctors are more likely to use hormone-replacement therapy than their patients,” according to several recent surveys.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they are taking all this health and fitness into early retirement. And thanks to the hordes of baby boomers hanging up their stethoscopes for good, finding enough doctors in any shape at all is going to be a challenge, particularly in light of the numbers of newly insured.

Nearly 40 percent of doctors are 55 or older, according to the Center for Workforce Studies of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Included in that group are doctors whose specialties will be the pillars of providing care in 2014, when the overhaul kicks in; family medicine and general practitioners (37 percent); general surgeons (42 percent); pediatrics (33 percent), and internal medicine and pediatrics (35 percent).

About a third of the much larger nursing workforce is 50 or older, and about 55 percent expressed an intention to retire in the next 10 years, according to a Nursing Management Aging Workforce Survey by the Bernard Hodes Group. New registered nurses are flowing from colleges, but not enough to replace the number planning to leave the profession.

“Moving into the future, we see a very large shortage of nurses, about 300,000,” said Peter Buerhaus, a nurse and health-care economist and a professor at Vanderbilt University. “That number does not account for the demand created by reform. That’s a knockout number. It knocks the system down. It stops it.”

According to the census, baby boomers include the 66 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

In an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Buerhaus and colleagues Douglas Staiger and David Auerbach predicted that there will be at least 100,000 fewer doctors in the workplace than the 1.1 million the federal government projects will be needed in 2020 under the health-care overhaul.

“There’s a much more rapid retirement of physicians,” Buerhaus said. “What does this retirement mean? This will mean at least 100,000 fewer doctors in the workplace in 2020.”He said the article does not estimate the change in demand or the level of recruitment by medical colleges, which is being beefed up significantly under the health-care law.

Although current studies involve more than a little conjecture — Will professions in the medical field continue to be as attractive as other areas? Will doctors and nurses work longer if truly needed? — there is no doubt about the coming shortage.

Lori Heim, president of the American Association of Family Practitioners, said someone might soon have to replace her. “My age group is looking at when we are going to retire,” said Heim, who is 54. “More physicians are changing their practice, doing things that have less calls. They want administrative roles.”

Heim said her statement is based on an impression. “I haven’t seen any numbers on this.” But, she said, her association is among the many that for years have pointed out the shortage of primary care doctors and nurses to the White House and Congress.

Staying healthy might be the best defense.

Retirements by baby-boomer doctors, nurses could strain overhaul.

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