Aging Physicians


I came across a graph in AM News depicting how the physician population is aging.

Notice how the the distribution of physicians in 1970 (brown graph) was skewed toward younger physicians.
By 2008 (yellow graph), the number of young physicians is significantly lower than any other demographic – including physicians 65 years old and older.

The US population during that time increased from 203 million to more than 300 million.

The graph demographics don’t state whether the physicians are practicing medicine or whether they still even have licenses, so it’s tough to compare whether the amount of available care per patient is changing.

Oh, and for disclosure, the graph is from the AMA statistics, so according to some people that read this blog, the information is biased, comes from a shill organization organized by Phil Howard, and only represents the insurance companies, the Mafia, those Nigerian phone scam artists, and all those people who club baby seals to death.

But the thing that caught my eye about the graph was that if the older physicians who are still practicing get fed up and retire, the country stands to lose a substantial proportion of its physicians. The numbers on the graph put the number of physicians 65 and older at around 200,000 and the number of physicians 55-64 at a little less than 200,000.

One of the other things that bothers me is that, according to this graph, the country doesn’t seem to be replacing older physicians with younger ones.

The population is growing, not shrinking.

What would a decline in younger physicians mean for future generations of patients?


  1. Philip Howard works for the AMA? I thought he was employed by the tobacco lawyers, Covington & Burling?

      • Don’t know if he is or not. Politicians tend to have many paymasters. I do know that the tobacco industry, through funds funneled through C&B, are some of the original paymasters of the recent tort “reform” movement (you can google most of the original source tobacco docs and find them quickly if you want to verify).

      • Perhaps you didn’t read the first sentence of the answer. I said I don’t know if he is or not. I’ve seen no evidence he is, so I’ll assume he’s not.

        Your inability to read what I wrote speaks for itself.

  2. i’m not sure i get it. aren’t med schools still all filling to capacity and graduating nearly all its enrollees? does that mean more young grads are pursuing nonclinical careers?

    • Honestly, I think you have to factor in the increasing number of non-traditional students. A good 10-15% of my class was over 30 by graduation which means an even larger percent will be over 35 by the time they start practicing. Also, what about fields with very lengthy residencies + fellowships. Interventional radiology is 7-8 years now so if you graduate at age 28 then you hit 35 before you graduate. Cardiology is a good 6 years. A surgical subspecialty will cost you around 7 years as well.

    • It’s probably a function of the fact that med school enrollment growth hasn’t kept pace over the years. Also, it’s residency that’s the real bottleneck for physician training, and Medicare has frozen funding for those since the late 1990s.

  3. One issue, dealt with at length in the European journals but considered politically incorrect to discuss here, is that a lot of the current graduates plan to work reduced hours compared to their predecessors, and devote more time to raising a family and other pursuits. Good for them, in my opinion, but it will require more people to do the same job, and there will be fewer people accepting the onerous duty of the night, weekend, and holiday duties.

  4. Agree with Dave. More and more younger docs are choosing to work fewer hours compared to the older generation of docs. And docs closing in on retirement are starting to cut back their hours as well.

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  6. In 1970, at a population of 220 million, we had 330k physicians.

    Forty years later, at a population of 300 million, we have three times that many physicians.

    Indeed, we have almost half as many physicians under age 35 now than we had total in 1970.

    Yup, the demographic trend isn’t encouraging. But it doesn’t look like a crisis.

  7. Half of med students are now female. They don’t practice as many hours when thay are done. Many from my class are not practicing at all 5 years out, and some did not even bother to obtain a license

  8. Yeah! Git rid of those damn wimmin takin’ up men’s spots in the class! Or make ’em do the wimmin-type jobs like babies and deliverin’ babies! How ’bout being a nurse instead, sweet cheeks?

    ***sarcasm alert***

    Seriously, I run into this stereotype everywhere (more in the south than where I currently reside). I was asked this question in med school and residency and even in my first job after residency: What will you do when you have kids? Umm, WORK! I worked until my water broke and was back at conferences at 10 days post delivery working part time at 6 weeks and full time at 10 weeks. My husband works full time and our daughter loves daycare. So don’t assume a woman will take the mommy track!

    • Calm down. The guy is speaking from personal experience and you jump all over him shoving words in his mouth.

      Trends like the one given are also pretty common in engineering..with all the “old” baby boomers (the tail end at least) coming up on retirement. I look at it as a great opportunity being younger since it means I can always have a job. And I don’t think we’ll ever see a lack of kids who want to go to med school.

      • sheesh, it is not a stereotype and doesn’t pertain to everyone (even you missed 10 days and part time). It is simply a fact that on average a female is going to work less than men following schooling. It is not a bad thing. It’s not a knock or a putdown in any way. In fact it is quite good and fine and frankly I am jealous. It is something that just is part of the equation in doctor demographics.

  9. As I said in my comment, this issue is not politically correct and immediately provokes outraged reactions. But if you look at statistics, it is true that many women physicians (not all) tend to work fewer hours than their male counterparts, place more importance (correctly, IMHO) on family and personal life, and I suspect many male physicians in the future will follow suit once such positions become more widespread. We have several part time MD’s where I work, and all of them save one is female. I don’t see anything wrong with this – heck, I’d do it myself if I could. My wife has endured a lot because of my hours. And I think there is NOTHING more important than raising kids correctly.
    There were some major editorials in the BMJ about this a year or so ago – not moralizing, just saying that it needs to be factored into the manpower requirement projections. Given that women often favor primary care positions over subspecialties this could subtantially affect primary care disproportionately.

  10. Judging from the graph, it’s apparent that Medicine no longer holds the allure it once had. If you want more doctors, you will need to create a more benevolent practice environment for doctors. Yes, it’s just that simple.

  11. Or will we need so many physicians after the Baby Boomer swell is gone?

    I don’t know how much more “benevolent” we can make the environment. You’re paid better than any profession in the world.

  12. Matt, do you really think a paycheck is the only thing that correlates with job satisfaction, especially for those who went into this for other reasons than money? But you know better, you’re just making another stupid jab at the profession.

    • No I don’t. But I don’t know how much more society can offer you. At some point you must take some action and stop waiting on everyone else. Its not a jab at all. Our society shows how it values what you do with payment. We have valued your skills near the top. If you want to improve the quality of your individual lives that’s on you the individual.

      That’s not a criticism but a reality. It’s the same for me.

      • Yeah Dave,
        Physicians need to start hiring more lawyers to deal with the lawyers who were voted into office by the work of their lawyers.

        Once your lawyers sit down with the lawyers’ lawyers, then something can be done.

        But it will take a few more lawyers to do it.

      • Why would one hire a lawyer to improve the quality of their day to day life? That’s a personal, work/time balance that only you can do, Ed. You got to learn to take some responsibility for your own happiness, my friend. Don’t pay a lawyer, therapist, physician, pharmacist, or anyone else for it.

      • Interesting reply, if entirely off-point.

        You constantly berate WC and others for “not doing something”, the catch being, that to do anything about it requires one to hire lawyers to deal with lawyers.

        Mainly because lawyers have created a system where an average individual has little to no chance of actually dealing with any kind of legal issue without having to “hire a guide”.

        I know that you will have some kind of smarmy comment to attempt to display your eminence in all things. Feel free, as I will not be revisiting this thread.

      • “that to do anything about it requires one to hire lawyers to deal with lawyers.”

        You don’t need lawyers to improve your work-life balance. Someone has seriously stripped your confidence away if you believe that.

        “Mainly because lawyers have created a system where an average individual has little to no chance of actually dealing with any kind of legal issue without having to “hire a guide”.”

        You don’t need a guide. I see people who represent themselves all the time. It would be difficult for a physician to do so because it’s simply not cost effective in terms of the best use of their time. But I bet you handle legal issues every day without an attorney. Buy a house, sign contracts, break contracts, settle claims with an insurer, and on and on.

        I will agree with you that there are just too many laws, but that’s a function of legislators, many of whom are not lawyers, responding to what people say they want. Personally, I think you could remove 50% of the statutes in this country and we’d not even notice.

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