Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a growing shortage of doctors and nurses across America. The problem was particularly acute in rural and inner-city areas, places that had a hard time attracting medical professionals willing to open new practices or move to economically challenged locales. Additionally, the closing of hundreds of rural and inner-city hospitals over the last 30 years created significant losses of physician specialists and highly trained nurses in these hard-hit areas.

Coming to a neighborhood near you

Now the physician and nurse shortages are projected to expand by significant numbers and for a variety of new reasons. In June 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicted that by 2033 we may be as many as 139,000 physicians short of what we will need. That research was completed before the pandemic occurred, suggesting that the shortage may be even more acute due to physician early retirement and burnout.

Two additional factors are emerging. The aging population is creating more demand for physician and nursing services than ever before. That is going to grow as the over-65 population booms over the next two decades. In fact, the 65+ age segment will grow by 45 percent in the next 10 years. Two in five American doctors will turn 65 in that same time period, which may accelerate the shortage due to retirements.

You may already be feeling the impact of the shortage. A 2019 poll of voters, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, found that 35 percent of respondents reported having trouble finding a doctor in the previous two to three years. That was 10 points higher than just four years earlier. In the coming years, no matter where you live, expect the impact of these shortages to affect you.

How to plan for the future

My primary care doctor is in his early 60s and is a sole practitioner. I’m already searching out a younger physician in case my doctor announces his retirement. You should be thinking about the future in the same way. One strategy is to use physicians affiliated with a group practice. That way, if one leaves, others are available. Another idea is to use specialty or primary care practitioners in practices owned by a local or regional hospital. Today, more than 50 percent of all medical practitioners are employed by hospitals.

Also consider using physician assistants or nurse practitioners for your primary care or specialty follow-up. They are well-trained, licensed practitioners, and many states have widened the scope of their licenses because of the pandemic.

The bottom line: Be prepared and plan ahead.