The Doctor Shortage: Locum Tenens Only Part of the Solution

Some of the more recent estimates suggest that the medical profession could be short anywhere between 40,000 and 105,000 doctors by 2030. Though the largest percentage of those missing doctors would be internists and family medicine practitioners, every specialty will be affected in some way. Locum tenens staffing is expected to be part of the solution.

The most important word here is ‘part’. While it is true that locum tenens staffing is capable of filling scheduling holes to some degree, the doctor shortage is really about mathematics. Expecting locum staffing to be the entire solution is both short-sighted and overly optimistic. It is only one part of a much broader solution that involves education, regulation, and technology.

Educating New Doctors

The doctor shortage is all about mathematics for one simple reason: there are not enough doctors to meet the demand. If there aren’t enough, it doesn’t matter whether doctors practice as locums, take jobs in hospitals, or open their own practices. All locum tenens staffing does is shift doctors from one assignment to the next as the need dictates. It does not magically create new doctors out of thin air.

Creating those new doctors is a matter of getting more people into medical school, training them, and then getting them into the field. That means we need a more concerted effort within the educational establishment to facilitate better recruiting, better training, and better career planning. Simply put, medical schools need to step up their game.

Streamlining Regulations

A comprehensive analysis of healthcare delivery will not allow us to escape the reality that burdensome regulation is strangling medicine. A good example was the mandate put in place nearly a decade ago to require all healthcare facilities – be they private practices, clinics, hospitals, etc. – to convert to electronic record-keeping.

The impetus behind the mandate was to create a nationwide database of medical records that allows doctors to access patient information and histories no matter where patients show up for care. It is an altruistic idea, indeed. But implementation has led to a nightmare scenario. Doctors are leaving the profession in droves because they are tired of having to concentrate so much time on electronic record-keeping that they cannot devote time to their patients.

Hand-in-hand with these sorts of direct regulations are those indirect regulations involving insurance coverage. Between regulation and insurance company policies, doctors are virtual prisoners in their own offices; their day-to-day schedules are being dictated by insurance companies and state watchdogs.

Embracing Technology

Finally, technology can be a boon to the medical industry and a great tool for recruiting new doctors if it is fully embraced. Today’s medical students and their future patients were born and raised on technology. It governs nearly every aspect of their lives. So why shouldn’t doctors use the same technology they have grown up with to offer medical care?

We need to do a better job of implementing telemedicine on a nationwide basis. We need to find a way to plug medical care into the gig economy through smartphone apps and on-demand appointments. We need to find ways to use technology to streamline the billing and coding process so as to eliminate errors, make doctors’ offices more efficient, and guarantee that doctors get paid full value for their services.

The doctor shortage is all about mathematics.  We should be embracing locum staffing as a big part of the solution – but not the entire solution. Otherwise, we do not solve the math problem and American medicine could very easily find itself in a world of hurt in the not so distant future.