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Study Forecasts More Young Doctors in Future

But estimates on workforce date conflict, experts say

TUESDAY, Oct. 20 (HealthDay News) -- The future physician workforce in the United States may be younger but fewer in number than previously projected, a new study claims.

Researchers looked at physician employment trends by analyzing data in the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile and the U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey (CPS). They used data from 1979 to 2008 to project physician supply through 2040.

In an average year, the CPS estimated 67,000 (10 percent) fewer active physicians than Masterfile. Estimates from both databases were similar for physicians aged 35 to 54, but showed marked differences for the numbers of active younger and older physicians. On average, the CPS estimated 22,000 (20 percent) fewer active physicians per year aged 55 to 64, and 35,000 (51 percent) fewer active physicians per year aged 65 and older than the Masterfile. The CPS estimated more young physicians (ages 25 to 34) than the Masterfile, with the difference increasing to an average of 17,000 (12 percent) during the final 15 years (2025 to 2040).

"The CPS estimates of more young physicians were consistent with historical growth observed in the number of first-year residents, and the CPS estimates of fewer older physicians were consistent with lower Medicare billings by older physicians," wrote Douglas O. Staiger, of Dartmouth College, and colleagues.

Both the CPS and Masterfile data suggest the number of active physicians will increase about 20 percent between 2005 and 2020, but the CPS-based projection suggests there will be nearly 100,000 (9 percent) fewer active physicians in 2020 than Masterfile projects -- 957,000 vs. 1,050,000. CPS data also indicates that a smaller percentage of active physicians will be 65 or older.

"The CPS-based projection indicates that 71 percent of active physicians will be younger than 55 years and only 9 percent will be older than 65 years, whereas the Masterfile-based projection indicates that 61 percent of active physicians will be younger than 55 years and 18 percent will be older than 65 years," the researchers said.

"Although this analysis was restricted to physician supply, projections of physician requirements also rely on estimates of the current number of physicians as a starting point for projections. Thus, without more accurate estimates of the size and age distribution of the current workforce, projections of physician supply, requirements and potential shortages may mislead policymakers as they try to anticipate and prepare for the health-care needs of the population," they concluded.

The study appears in the Oct. 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about the healthcare workforce.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, news release, Oct. 20, 2009

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