NewsNews5 Investigates


News5 Investigates: Doctor shortage impacting Colorado health care

Nationwide estimate 121,900 doctors short by 2032
Posted at 3:23 PM, Feb 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-10 20:37:40-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — News5 Investigates America's doctor shortage. If you've tried calling your doctor only to be told the next available appointment is weeks or even months away you aren't alone. Our investigation reveals Colorado Springs hospitals are not immune from the shortage and are working hard to find solutions.

"We can see it. We are all feeling it," said UCHealth Urgent Care and Family Practice Doctor Ian Tullberg.

He says a nationwide doctor shortage leads to a packed schedule and frustrated patients waiting longer than they should for care.

"Within about 10 to 13 years the United States is going to be about 50,000 doctors short, primary care physicians short it in order to serve the population that we actually have and that is a huge thing that is not going away now," said Dr. Tullberg.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says there's expected to be a doctor shortfall of almost 122,000 doctors nationwide by 2032. Plus, the demand for care is expected to rise with the aging Baby Boomer generation. The number of people older than 65 is set to increase by 48% by 2032.

Doctor Erik Wallace is working to train the next generation of doctors at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Colorado Springs.

“It's hard to know where we're going to be 5, 10, 20 years down the road. My hope is that were in a very much better position than we are right now but it is a little bit frightening,” said Dr. Wallace.

He says the numbers show more students are eager to go into the medical field.

“When we looked at on application numbers to CU School of Medicine we are getting more and more applications each year. So we take 184 new students for per year and this year we had exceeded 10,000 applications for this 180 spots," Dr. Wallace said. "So is the interest there? Absolutely.”

But Dr. Wallas says until lawmakers invest in addressing the doctor shortage, students who could help meet the need will be turned away because there just isn't enough funding to provide more opportunities.

“So that is a challenge that our community faces, but it's also a potential opportunity especially if the funding sources can be sorted out which is the most complex piece of it,” said Dr. Wallace.

In Colorado Springs alone, experts say hospitals are facing a shortage of more than 100 primary care doctors. Centura Health is working to close the gap. Sending us the following statement: "Centura supports efforts that address the physician shortage by increasing educational and training opportunities and reducing the costs needed to become a physician."

"Over the last couple years we've been very purposeful in trying to bring in additional 50 primary care providers and we are well on our way having brought on 35 already," said Penrose St. Francis Chief Medical Officer Bill Plauth.

Training the next generation of doctors takes time. It's why doctors with full schedules say this issue can't wait.

"Out of high school the fastest you're going to get that done is about 11 years. That is the fastest. So let's say we increase medical schools substantially in the next couple years we're not going to see any benefits of that minimum for 11 years and that's not happening you're not seeing medical schools pop up all over the place," said Dr. Tullberg.

Despite the challenges of a doctor shortage in the years and decades to come, hospitals in the UCHealth system say they'll be leaning on virtual visits with patients and new technology to help meet the needs of patients quicker.

"Just looking at what technology is going to be able to do for us in the upcoming future is just going to be huge. It will help that burden, but unfortunately we are going to be facing this issue for quite a long time," said Dr. Tullberg.

Another reason the clock is ticking on this issue is because in the next decade, 2 out of every 5 doctors will be over 65 and could retire. Many experts believe the extra demand on doctors is leading to burnout and could spark earlier retirements for doctors in the years to come.

“You're starting to see more professional saying you know what I think it's time to retire, or it's time to cut back on the number of hours that I spend in the clinical setting just from a human standpoint of this is really hard and I can't keep up this pace anymore,” said Dr. Wallace.