What the Physician Shortage Has to Do With Employers’ Bottom Lines

December 17, 2015

Will Rumsey

When your first major cold of the year worsens –– and you know it’s about to turn into a full-blown sinus infection –– your first thought is probably to call your doctor. But because it’s “that time of year,” the appointment books are full of people being treated for illnesses just like yours. The nurse tells you the next available appointment is in two weeks.So what do you do? Should you take the appointment knowing you’ll suffer through the worst of it all on your own? Or do you make a visit to urgent care, spending more time and money to get the treatment you need now? And if changes in your health plan have forced you to change your primary care doctor, it could take months to find one that will accept new patients. What a mess!

This situation is all too common with the current physician shortage in the U.S. Despite growth in the actual number of physicians here, demand is projected to grow at an even faster rate. By 2025, we could be seeing a primary care physician shortage of 31,000.

This is what is causing the long wait times in your primary care physician’s office. This is what is keeping you from getting the care you need––when you need it. And for employers, the shortage is also eating away at your bottom line.

With fewer doctors available to care for your employees, they will start to face this situation more and more often. As an employer, you’ll start to see 3 major factors that will hurt your company’s financial health:

1. A longer delay in getting care means increased loss of productivity

What did you choose in the scenario above? As it gets harder to find a primary care physician, we’re all more likely to go to urgent care or an ER for a simple prescription or illness that could easily be treated by our first choice: primary care physicians. Those employees who can’t afford the high co-pays of an urgent care or an ER delay treatment––and, in turn, lose productivity while they fight the illness. If half of your workforce is sick because a cold is spreading through the office, that’s a damaging blow to productivity.

2. Seeking immediate care in an urgent care or ER increases claims costs

But for those employees who do seek the more expensive avenue of care, your claims costs rise as an employer. For example:

The average cost of a primary physician’s office claim is $105. But the average cost of an urgent care claim is $156, and the average cost of the ER is $1,390. Your company will pay the difference when your employees can’t get in to see their primary care physicians.

3. Employees don't seek treatment, so their conditions get worse

If your employees choose to follow path #1 they might just suffer through an extended, untreated cold or cough. But more serious health issues, like chronic cough or pain, may be an indicator of a more serious, expensive-to-treat illness.

Think of this as a choice between preventive care and catastrophic care. Preventive care saves lives and lessens healthcare costs––while catastrophic care can rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in healthcare expenses, long hospital stays and costly procedures.

In addition, when your employees face more serious illnesses caused by untreated smaller ones, their productivity plummets. They may have to take weeks of sick leave while they recover from invasive procedures and regain their health. In the end, it would have been much smarter for their health and much less expensive for your company if they had been able to receive preventive care right away.

The U.S. physician shortage will drastically affect the way we see healthcare in the future. Wait times are increasing, costs are rising and the employers’ bottom lines will also suffer. But there are some things that you can do to offset healthcare costs for your employees without interfering with their quality of life. In fact, you can make their healthcare experiences more positive, wholesome ones.

Originally published Dec 17, 2015 3:30:00 PM.