The U.S. may need up to 200,000 more doctors than it will have by the years 2020-2025, says Richard Cooper, MD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Writing in the Nov. 2 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Cooper says the U.S. already needs more doctors and that the gap will grow in coming years.

“In simple numeric terms, the number of physicians is no longer keeping up with population growth,” he writes.

Current doctor shortages “are confined to certain specialties, and the severity of these shortages varies across the nation,” says Cooper.

He says the same problem also faces Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand but that many of those countries are seeking to add more doctors through strategies such as building more medical schools, finding ways to attract more medical graduates trained overseas, and expanding class size at medical schools.

The potential problem should be considered, writes Alan Gerber, MD, PhD, of Stanford University School of Medicine in an editorial in the same edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine. However, Gerber writes that he isn’t sure about a looming doctor shortage since many unforeseeable factors could influence future demand for doctors.

New medical developments could either increase or decrease demand, and there’s no way to know that now, writes Gerber. He also writes that tomorrow’s senior citizens may be healthier than past generations and that changes in health care financing may also have an impact.

“We need to think carefully about how these factors may change how to use health professionals, including physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, more effectively,” writes Gerber, who says a “prudent strategy” could be to increase America’s doctor supply gradually if the need is confirmed.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

SOURCES: Cooper, R., Annals of Internal Medicine, Nov. 2, 2004; vol 141: pp 705-714. Gerber, A., Annals of Internal Medicine, Nov. 2, 2004; vol 141: pp 732-734.