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Ebb, flow of physician workforce studied

By Kathy Rivers
January 2010

Amid concerns about a national physician shortage, a new study found that more young physicians are entering the workforce and fewer older physicians are remaining active, resulting in estimates for a smaller and younger physician workforce now and in the future.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Douglas Staiger, Ph.D., of Dartmouth College, David Auerbach, Ph.D., of the Congressional Budget Office, and Peter Buerhaus, Ph.D., R.N., of Vanderbilt’s Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies and Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

Researchers compared data from the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile (Masterfile), a data source frequently used by physician workforce analysts, with data from U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey (CPS), used extensively by the U.S. Department of Labor to estimate current trends in employment.

Reviewing data from both sources from 1979 and 2008, the study found:

• The CPS estimated 67,000 fewer active physicians than did the Masterfile

• Older physicians accounted almost entirely for the lower estimates of active physicians in the CPS. 

• The CPS estimated 22,000 fewer active physicians per year ages 55 to 64 than did the Masterfile, and estimated 35,000 fewer active physicians per year 65 or older than the Masterfile.

• The CPS estimated more young physicians (ages 25 to 34 years) than did the Masterfile.

• Female physicians are 59 percent as active at 25 to 34 years and 98 percent as active at 55 to 64 years, using CPS data.

• Both data sources indicate that the number of active physicians will increase by approximately 20 percent between 2005 and 2020.

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