U.S. patients are likely to face growing challenges in access to care if shifting patterns in medical practice configurations and physician workforce trends continue. This is one of the key findings of a survey of 20,000 physicians that was commissioned by The Physicians Foundation.
According to the research, titled “2014 Survey of America’s Physicians: Practice Patterns and Perspectives,” 81 percent of physicians describe themselves as either over-extended or at full capacity, while only 19 percent indicate they have time to see more patients. Forty-four percent of physicians surveyed plan to take steps that would reduce patient access to their services, including cutting back on patients seen, retiring, working part-time, closing their practice to new patients or seeking non-clinical jobs, leading to the potential loss of tens of thousands of full-time-equivalents (FTEs). As the ranks of Medicare and Medicaid patients increase—in 2011, more than 75 million baby boomers began turning 65 and qualifying for Medicare—and millions of new patients are insured through the Affordable Care Act, patient access to care could pose significant health delivery and policy challenges, according to the study.
The survey, conducted online from March 2014 through June 2014 by Merritt Hawkins for The Physicians Foundation, is based on responses from 20,088 physicians across the U.S.
Physician Workforce Demographics and Patterns: A Changing of the Guard
In comparing the physician surveys conducted by The Physicians Foundation in 2008 and 2012, the 2014 respondents are younger, more work in employed settings (e.g., hospital systems), there are more females and more work in primary care. In 2014, the average age of the respondents is 50, versus an average age of 54 in 2012. In 2014, 33 percent of the survey respondents are female, versus only 26 percent in 2012.
In addition to changing workforce demographics, the survey captured significant transitions underway in physician workforce patterns and practice settings. For instance, in 2014, only 17 percent of physicians indicate that they are in solo practice, down from 25 percent in 2012. In 2014, only 35 percent of physicians describe themselves as independent practice owners, down from 49 percent in 2012 and 62 percent in 2008. Fifty-three percent of respondents describe themselves as employees of a hospital or medical group, up from 44 percent in 2012 and 38 percent in 2008. More than two-thirds of employed physicians (68 percent) expressed concerns relative to clinical autonomy and their ability to make the best decisions for their patients.
Physician Morale: Outlook Improving, but Pessimism Still Remains High
In 2012, many physicians described high levels of government regulation, malpractice liability pressures, inadequate and inconsistent reimbursement, and eroding clinical autonomy as factors leading to discontentment. In 2014, survey questions focused more on clinical autonomy, given the significant patient implications. When asked about levels of clinical autonomy and the ability to make the best decisions for patients, 69 percent of physicians indicate that their decisions are often compromised—demonstrating a strong potential bearing on quality of patient care, according to the study.
As seen in previous survey years, a majority of physicians (56 percent) continue to describe their morale as somewhat to very negative However, optimism levels increased between 2014 and 2012. In 2014, 44 percent of physicians characterize themselves as somewhat or very positive about the current state of the medical profession, compared to 32 percent in 2012.
The reason for this increase could be attributed to the changing composition of the survey respondents, according to The Physicians Group. Specifically, 54 percent of younger physicians (ages 45 or lower) surveyed are optimistic about the state of medicine, versus 30 percent of older physicians (ages 46 or higher). Female physicians are slightly more optimistic about the current state of medicine (49 percent) than their male counterparts (42 percent). Fifty-one percent of employed physicians are optimistic about the current state of the medical profession, compared to 33 percent of physicians who own their own practice.
When asked about what grade physicians would give the Affordable Care Act (ACA), 46 percent give a D or F grade. Younger (ages 45 or lower), employed physicians were more inclined to give the ACA favorable marks than older (46 or higher), private practice owners. In fact, 63 percent of younger physicians (ages 45 or lower), would give the ACA a grade of C or above.
Electronic Medical Records and Additional Findings
Eighty-five percent of physicians surveyed indicate that they have implemented electronic medical records (EMR). Yet, only 24 percent say that EMR systems have improved efficiency and only 32 percent indicate that it has improved quality of care. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) noted that EMR systems detract from patient interaction.
Additional survey findings include:
- Thirty-nine percent of physicians indicate that they will accelerate their retirement plans due to changes in the healthcare system;
- Twenty-six percent of physicians now participate in an Accountable Care Organization (ACO), though only 13 percent believe ACOs will enhance quality and decrease costs;
- Fifty percent of physicians indicate implementation of ICD-10 will cause severe administrative problems in their practices;
- Physicians spend 20 percent of their time on non-clinical paperwork;
- On average, physicians surveyed said 49 percent of their patients are enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid;
- Yet 24 percent of physicians surveyed either do not see Medicare patients or limit the number Medicare patients they see;
- Thirty-eight percent of physicians either do not see Medicaid patients or limit the number of Medicaid Patients they see; and
- Physicians surveyed said they work an average of 53 hours per week and see approximately 20 patients per day