Why Is It So Difficult to Find a Primary Care Physician?

The Number of PCPs is Dwindling in the United States

Sometimes it seems impossible to find a primary care physician. Why is it so difficult to find a primary care physician and what can we do about it?

Happy doctor giving prescription to patient in clinic
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Why Is Finding a Primary Care Physician So Difficult?

Like so many of the questions about our healthcare, we can follow the money to get to the bottom of the reason many of us may have trouble finding a primary care doctor.

Primary care doctors include family practitioners, internists, pediatricians, and OB-GYNs. The number of primary care doctors is dwindling in the United States; there are approximately 14,000 too few primary care doctors for the number of people who need them. It has been estimated that the gap will increase to 21,100 - 55,200 by 2032.

Fewer practitioners means more difficulty finding one to help you, or making an appointment with the one you already see. You can see that the smaller numbers of primary care doctors would have an impact on your ability to find one for your care.

There are several problems that contribute to the shortage: The low numbers of medical students who are choosing primary care as a specialty, and the increasing numbers of Baby Boomers who require more and more care as they age. The insurance expansion and the growing epidemics of diabetes and obesity also play a part.

Medical Students and Primary Care

Ask most newly matriculated medical students why they would like to become healthcare providers and they will reply with answers that represent a certain amount of idealism. "I want to help people" is a common answer. However, then the realities of time and money become more apparent to them.

The average medical student finishes education almost $200,000 in debt. Meanwhile the average primary care physician makes $237,000 while a specialist can expect to make $341,000 each year. Which would you choose?

Primary care physicians find their day doesn't end after eight hours or even 10. They may be regularly on call, 24/7 and working on weekends, too. Even the primary's day looks different. Because insurance reimbursements work the way they do, a primary care doctor is paid much less per patient visit or procedure than a specialist is. Therefore, a PCP must fit that many more patients into his day. The lower reimbursements go, the less time the healthcare provider can spend with each patient because he must see that many more patients just to keep the lights turned on.

Now add all that up: Fewer students choose to be primary care physicians, meaning the ones that do exist are already squeezed for income and time, meaning then even fewer students will choose to become PCPs. It's a vicious cycle.

How Can You Find a Primary Care Physician Who Can Help You?

It's not easy. Begin with your insurance company's list of healthcare providers, then work through the steps to choose the best doctor for you.

And when you get there, tell your practitioner you understand how difficult their day is. He or she will appreciate the consideration and respect you even more for your understanding.

You may want to consider seeing a nurse practitioner instead. Nurse practitioners are trained in primary care and can offer their services as part of a larger group of healthcare providers and nurse practitioners, or in stand-alone practices.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Association of American Medical Colleges. New findings confirm predictions on physician shortage.

  2. Bodenheimer TS, Smith MD. Primary care: proposed solutions to the physician shortage without training more physicians. Health Aff (Millwood). 2013;32(11):1881-6. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2013.0234

  3. Association of American Medical Colleges. 7 ways to reduce medical school debt.

  4. Kaplan. Average doctor salaries by specialty.

  5. Medical Economics. Here is the PCP crisis solution and it's simple.

  6. MedlinePlus. Choosing a primary care provider.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.