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Doctor shortage: Big problem that is getting worse


Vero Beach is feeling the impact of a serious and growing nationwide shortage of physicians, and national healthcare organizations predict the situation will get much worse.

Anecdotal evidence of the healthcare crunch continues to pile up from local residents experiencing lengthy waits to schedule an appointment – often weeks, increasingly even months – for something as seemingly simple as an inoculation. Surgical procedures frequently wind up postponed because a surgeon is not available.

The nation could see a shortage of “up to 139,000 physicians by 2033,” according to a projection by the American Association of Medical Colleges. Here in Florida, the state will be short “almost 18,000 physicians by 2035, resulting in patient access to primary and specialty doctors meeting only three-quarters of the needs of Florida’s growing population,” according to the Florida Hospital Association. 

Vero Beach, with its rapidly growing senior population, is at the epicenter of this growing healthcare crisis.

Longtime local physician Ralph Rosato, MD, a past president of the Indian River County Medical Society, describes the issues driving the shortage of healthcare professionals here as “multifactorial,” starting with what he calls “the great resignation.”

More than 50 percent of today’s physicians and Registered Nurses here are 55 years old or older, and the “very high” cost of living in Vero Beach makes it difficult to attract younger medical professionals and support staff, he said.

“Many medical professionals are older when they move here,” according to Dr. Rosato, who said that while “most physicians work 50 to 60 hours a week, many new physicians choose not to work that many hours, so we need more than one-to-one replacement for retiring physicians.”

Tom Lewis, MD, who has practiced internal medicine here since 1999 and is a partner  in Indian River Primary Care, said the growing physician shortage will disproportionately impact underserved areas and “Vero Beach is considered underserved – which should not be a surprise to most patients in the area.   

“Access to care, especially primary care, continues to deteriorate. Less primary care equals less preventative medicine. This is why urgent care centers are proliferating,” Dr. Lewis said.  

He, too, pointed to increased retirement as a major factor in the physician shortage.

“Physician burnout exacerbates this trend,” he said, and “covid did not help matters.”

Rosato agreed. “The pandemic was very taxing for hospitals and staff (which has) led to burnout and medical personnel taking leaves of absence,” he said.

Compounding the problem, Lewis said, is “we have a rapidly growing elderly population.  Older patients are more complex and see physicians more frequently.  Therefore, they consume a larger proportion of healthcare resources. Over the next 15 years, our national population is expected to grow by 10 percent.  The over-65 population is expected to grow by 45 percent.”

Training more doctors and nurses could help address the crisis, but Rosato said “the interest in medicine as a vocation has waned in this country.” 

Beyond burnout from the pandemic, he cited other professions offering higher wages, and a better lifestyle in non-medical careers.