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Shortage of doctors spreading throughout US

NEW YORK — Mary Berg is paying the price for a shortage of US doctors that by most accounts is about to get much worse.

After finding out in 2006 she had a rare and deadly gastrointestinal cancer, the 49-year-old mother of a teenage daughter found there were no doctors in Nevada who specialized in her type of tumor.

Only one cancer center took her insurance. And because the tumor had spread, the need for a liver transplant was a distinct possibility, though no surgeons in the state were qualified to do the procedure. She had to give up her house and move to Arizona to get the care she needed.


Once a problem limited to rural areas, doctor shortages are now hitting large population centers such as Las Vegas and Detroit where people may have to wait weeks or months or travel hundreds of miles for care.

Nationwide, there is a shortage of more than 13,000 doctors, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that represents medical schools.

That shortfall is expected to grow 10-fold to 130,000 doctors within 12 years as the US population ages and 30 million more people are added to insurance rolls under the 2010 health-care law, the medical college association said.

In the Las Vegas area, with about 2 million people, patients and doctors said it can take six months to see a primary-care doctor for a simple checkup. For more serious matters, the waits are far longer — more than a year, for example, to get an appointment with a neurologist who specializes in autism.

Frustrated by years of not being able to get proper care, Berg and her husband decided this summer to walk away from their home near Las Vegas, which she says has since gone into foreclosure. They moved their family 300 miles away to Phoenix so she could be close to a specialist and a transplant center.


In a bid to address the shortage, the medical community has embraced the greater use of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who can prescribe medicines and diagnose and treat many illnesses. The number of physician assistants is projected to increase 39 percent to 108,000 by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, physician assistants can’t replace specialists as regional shortages of all categories of doctors persist.

‘‘This is a national problem across the board, and it is going to get much worse,’’ said Christiane Mitchell, director of medical affairs for the Association of American Medical Colleges. ‘‘We have an aging population and a whole lot of doctors retiring. We need to increase the pipeline of new doctors.’’

Multiple reasons are driving the shortages. As baby boomers age, their care has become more complex and time-consuming. At the same time, some baby boomers are also doctors who are expected to retire in the coming years, according to the association. One in every three doctors nationwide are older than 55, the group said.

Hospitals are using video conferencing systems to reach people in remote areas.