The looming physician shortage represents a dire situation for the state of healthcare in the U.S., as many experts predict that demand for health services will soon exceed the industry's capacity to provide care. The underlying reasons are a complex stew of aging baby boomers, physician burnout and the widespread closure of rural hospitals, not to mention the declining number of medical residency slots available to new graduates.
Telemedicine has been floated as a potential balm to this problem. The model is growing partly out of necessity, as generational shifts are resulting in more demand for technological solutions to care. And more physicians and clinicians are embracing the virtual care model as well, partly because it enables them to cast a wider net and regain a semblance of control over their workflows.
Earlier this spring, Jeff Cutler, chief revenue officer of telehealth firm Tyto Care, said the traditional model of care delivery is becoming antiquated, and that the industry would do well to learn from digital companies like Uber and Lyft, which connect customers to drivers based on proximity and availability.
Lee Horner, founder and CEO of virtual care company Synzi, takes this idea a step further, positing that telehealth has a critical role to play in reviving prospective graduate students' interest in the field of medicine.
"It was the goal of a lot of children, who are now adults," said Horner. "Their aspirations were to be in healthcare or to provide care, and over time what we've seen is it's become a very tough job from a physician's perspective. They're not as glorified as they once were. They come with a lot of liability and risk around them."
A Mercer analysis published this year broke down the projected physician shortage by speciality, and the numbers are gloomy. Home health aides top the list with a predicted shortfall of 446,300 by 2025, while nursing assistants came in second at 95,000. It's a distant second, but still poses problems for the balance between supply and demand.
Medical and clinical lab technologists face a projected shortage of 58,700; medical and lab technicians, 40,000; and nurse practitioners, 29,400. All other occupations, including surgeons, face a shortfall of an estimated 11,000.
According to Horner, in order to accommodate the patient population, clinicians have to be willing to use technology they heretofore may not have considered.
"Not only is there a problem with core shortages, but there's a convenience factor from a patient's perspective," he said. "Patients today are not interested in having to spend time in a waiting room. They want the convenience, and access to a physician from home."
One of the primary concerns for physicians, said Horner, is time management -- a skill that may come under strain as baby boomers continue to tax the system, a phenomenon dubbed the "Silver Tsunami." Telemedicine frees time for the physician, alleviating some of their stress and, importantly, allowing them to see more patients in a day. That's becoming a near-necessity.
"Physicians are able to see far more patients on a daily basis," said Horner. "We've seen anywhere between a 30 to 40 percent uptick."
Of course, face-to-face patient-physician encounters will always be a part of healthcare; some people need a human touch, and bedside manner can be an important aspect of the patient experience.
But Horner expects the use of technology will only increase as the industry becomes desperate for doctors. The need for quality care is only increasing, and will be for a while.
"The younger patient population especially is expecting the ability to use technology to fill the gaps that we have today," he said. "In the future you're going to see the ability of physicians to be more available and see more patients on a daily basis."