How Telemedicine Benefits an Aging Population
By Tim Dall, Health Economist and Managing Director for Life Sciences Consulting at IHS Markit
By 2032, the United States will face a shortfall of up to 55,200 primary care physicians and up to 65,800 non-primary care physicians. This is based on our most recent projections, even accounting for the increased use of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as other trends that may impact how care is used and delivered. Why the shortfall? The number-one factor is age.
When you consider the many medical conditions that drive demand for services, like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, it’s our nation’s aging population that’s driving the prevalence of these conditions and the growing need for care.
Yet age doesn’t just affect the demand for physicians; it also affects the supply. Just like the rest of us, the physician workforce is aging, and we have a large number of physicians who are nearing retirement. Two out of five active doctors will be age 65 or older within the next decade. This means that 40 percent of today’s physicians are at risk for retiring in the next 10 years. Add to that the growing concern for doctor burnout, and you have an aging physician population that is increasingly ready to throw in the towel.
How to Address the Coming Physician Shortfall
Clearly, we can’t stop time. But we can adopt newer, more innovative ways to deliver quality healthcare. This is where telemedicine comes into play. While still a relatively new market, telemedicine is quickly growing as healthcare providers look to scale some of their specialties and close the growing gap between clinician demand and supply.
Consider, for instance, how many healthcare organizations currently deal with physician shortages — we’ve seen a lot more physician assistants and nurse practitioners doing a lot of what doctors used to do. In some cases, this works. But not when it comes to acute care that requires specialized services.
While telemedicine may not work well for all specialties, such as surgical specialties, it’s absolutely a viable option for many others—especially those that support a more prominent role for advanced practice nurses and physician assistants who can manage patient care after diagnosis or for chronic conditions. Obviously, primary care falls into this category. But so do specialties like neurology and cardiology, which can often move patients under the care of a physician assistant, a nurse practitioner or even a pharmacist after the initial visit and once the patient is stabilized.
Geography also makes a difference. The way a physician shortfall is addressed differs between rural and urban areas. In the more rural areas, where it’s harder to attract and retain doctors, some organizations fill the gap with an advanced practice provider. The challenge, however, is that in rural areas you also have a lack of specialists. So sometimes it’s more important to have a primary care physician in a rural area than in an urban area, simply because that provider is taking on a greater role than she would in an urban area: she may be doubling as a cardiologist, an endocrinologist, even a gastroenterologist, essentially taking care of all a person’s needs. Telemedicine offers these rural communities the vast potential to improve access to more specialized care and make healthcare more equitable.
Not only are telemedicine outcomes relatively similar in terms of general patient outcomes overall, but patients also like the convenience and quality of telemedicine services.
Physicians Benefit From Telemedicine, Too
Then there’s the supply-side of the equation. While telemedicine can’t change the age of retirement, it can certainly reduce physician burnout. Think about the pressure of being on call. With telemedicine, this pressure is reduced because a physician no longer must be ready to rush to the hospital at a moment’s notice. Instead, she can do a patient assessment from the comfort of her own home. Not only does this improve the doctor’s work-life balance, it offers a better patient experience, too. Telemedicine can make it easier for a patient to communicate with his doctor, whether that’s a phone call, email or a video conference, eliminating the need to rush to the ED unnecessarily.
Telemedicine Helps Meet Healthcare Needs Today and Tomorrow
Let’s face it, the goal of physicians is to keep people healthy so that we live longer. And if we live longer, in the long term, we’re going to need more services and different types of services — which means we need more providers. While telemedicine can’t reduce the demand for physician care, it can boost productivity, which can have the same effect as an increase in provider supply — helping healthcare organizations meet the ever-increasing needs of our aging population.
Tim Dall, a health economist, leads the Life Sciences Consulting team at IHS Markit based in Washington D.C. He uses computer modeling to simulate how changes in care delivery affect health workforce supply and demand, health care expenditures, and disease burden and prevention. His work supports strategic planning and advocacy work for federal and state governments, associations and health systems. Ongoing work includes refining and maintaining a microsimulation model to assess health workforce supply and demand at the national, state and county levels to inform federal reports to Congress on the current and projected future state of the mental health, general surgeon, oral health, and primary care workforces.