Trendspotter: Temporary and Tech Solutions to the Physician Shortage

February 17, 2011

The term "doctor shortage" can elicit many responses - disbelief by some and worry by others are among the two most popular - but perhaps new solutions are emerging to help meet what Washington, D.C., sees as a growing patient base in need of medical care. The answer? Temporary physicians and perhaps one very smart "Jeopardy" contestant.

The term "doctor shortage" can elicit many responses - disbelief by some and worry by others are among the two most popular - but perhaps new solutions are emerging to help meet what Washington, D.C., sees as a growing patient base in need of medical care.

The answer? Temporary physicians and perhaps one very smart "Jeopardy" contestant.

Let's start with the human solution. A new survey by physician staffing firm Staff Care indicates that the use of temporary physicians is on the rise, with 85 percent of facilities polled indicating use of locum tenens over the last year. That's a 72 percent jump from the previous year, according to Staff Care.

Those hospitals and medical groups surveyed (63 percent of them at least) indicated the primary reason for using temporary physicians "is to fill in until a permanent doctor can be found." The firm's president, in a statement, added: There are simply too few physicians to fill all the available vacancies today."

Yes, there are some skeptics who say things are not that bad, others who feel the Affordable Care Act will promise more in terms of healthcare than it delivers, and others yet who say there is not a "doctor" shortage, there is a "specific type of doctor" shortage that depends largely on geography.

No matter where you stand, the use of locum tenens is interesting and could be a growing trend, along with the greater use of non-physician providers, to maximize efficiencies for medical practices. There is always the discussion when hiring a new physician about finding the right fit for the culture of the office, so I wonder if more practices will go with temporary, stop-gap efforts like locum tenens while searching for the perfect fit.

Now for the non-human side. For you "Jeopardy" fans, you know by now that "Watson," the IBM computer that essentially mopped the floor with two of the game shows most successful contestants, is all the buzz these days. Yes, Watson has given "super computer" new meaning after dominating the game show with the ability to respond to actual questions versus a data set.

Computerworld has an interesting piece on how the Watsons of the world may help out in medicine. A University of Maryland scholar is ready to give Watson an MD and ring in "a whole new generation of medicine." Now Watson is not just an EHR on steroids, mind you, he is envisioned to have greater responsibilities, helping physicians with treatment solutions based on past histories and other data sets.

"Watson – The Second Opinion You Plug Into a Wall." Pretty catchy, right IBM?

So which do you envision having a bigger impact on healthcare in the next five years: locum tenens or the laptop consultant?