The Doctor Is Not In. Neither Is the Accountant nor the Teacher

The average wait time for now-scarce primary-care doctors is one month. Why are shortages for several key professions mounting?

There’s a shortage in the marketplace—but not of furniture or cars or toilet paper: It’s a dearth of doctors, particularly primary-care physicians. You know, the ones people need most often.

Indeed, it’s become a sad reality of US healthcare. The average wait time for a primary-care visit is one month, and the number of adults with no primary doctor has jumped by 21% in the last decade, according to a recent report by the Milbank Memorial Fund aptly titled “No One Can See You Now.” Certain types of nurses, specialists, and counselors are also in short supply. And experts say that many other fields are facing equally alarming shortages, including accountants, teachers, and construction workers.

Experts advise leaders to address this problem before they reach a point of no return—as may have already happened for primary-care doctors. “There’s a pretty long pipeline, and I don’t think there’s any way of making up the shortage by increasing production at this point,” says Warren Ross, M.D, global sector leader for academic medicine at Korn Ferry.

The drivers of these shortages are specific to each field. For example, primary-care physicians earn a fraction of what doctors who perform procedures do. Their numbers have been falling for decades, a situation that has become apparent as aging baby boomers consume more and more medical care. Meanwhile, a scarcity of counselors and therapists has emerged due to two factors: increasing demand coupled with barriers to entry (gaining academic and licensure credentials typically takes five years, including 1,500 to 2,500 clinical hours paid at barely above the minimum wage).

But many of the roles most in need share a common feature. “These are professions which take a lot out of people, which society has not recognized,” says life-sciences expert Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “We are putting more and more pressure on them.” During the pandemic, for example, a half million public-school teachers left their jobs for good. As a result, 86% of public K-12 schools reported hiring challenges during this academic year.

Corporations have perhaps been most acutely affected by a shortage of accountants. CPA-exam entrants declined by one-third from 2016 to 2021—and 75% of professional accountants have reached retirement age. Yes, the profession has an image problem: “Accounting is perceived as boring,” wrote two professors of accounting in The CPA Journal last year. They pointed out that the field is not as well compensated as finance and technology. But the biggest barrier to entry may be the 150-hour rule, which dates back to 1988 and requires that wannabe accountants complete the equivalent of five years of higher education, rather than the usual four. A chorus of experts have suggested various amendments that would allow students with four-year degrees to enter the field.

The example of public-school teachers also illustrates what leaders may not want to do during a shortage. Data out of Brown University shows that the biggest hiring difficulties are faced by public-school administrators, who are offering prospective teachers low pay along with a challenging workplace in which high numbers of students are in poverty. Many schools have been forced to hire staff who lack teacher-training credentials or are teaching outside their areas of expertise. Data shows that this creates a cycle of turnover: These teachers often struggle to manage classrooms, then quit.

For healthcare executives, the shortages are a headache—one that the Biden administration tried to ease this month by issuing a new policy for nursing homes. The same healthcare shortages also cause headaches for leaders in other fields, because they represent potential health-equity issues in which executives enjoy access to concierge care, while rural workers—who have less access to primary-care doctors than any other demographic in the US—likely suffer. Employees can struggle even if they have the wherewithal and resources to connect their families with the right specialist. “Physical and medical well-being is crucial to performance,” says Steven Kapper, head of the National Health and Welfare Benefits practice at Korn Ferry. “Employees without access to care are not able to optimize their well-being.”

As for primary-care doctors, the pipeline of nurse practitioners isn’t sufficient to fill the gap. In this respect, Ross suspects that diagnostic AI could be helpful. “It’ll probably get it 90% correct—and there’s no 100% correct in medicine. That’s probably as good as an in-person doctor,” he says.


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