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Physician burnout influencing post-COVID hiring trends

Article

Primary care physicians in high demand in some areas

Health care organizations continue to feel the impact of COVID-19 on staffing. While the physician shortage has been decades in the making, COVID-induced stress and burnout has exacerbated the issue. Initial assessments predicted a spike in early physician retirements and a mass exodus of physicians of all ages. In a 2021 Jackson Physician Search survey, 21% of physicians said they were planning early retirement because of COVID. A 2022 MGMA STAT poll found 40% of medical practices had seen a physician retire early or leave the practice due to burnout. However, as the dust settles post-pandemic, it seems burned out physicians may not be exiting the profession en masse, but many are making changes that reflect shifting priorities and new expectations about what a physician career looks like.

A recent report by Tony Stajduhar, president of Jackson Physician Search, examines key developments happening in the national physician recruitment market based on the firm’s placement data, and as seen by its tenured recruitment team. The report, Physician Recruitment Trends: Responding to a Post-Pandemic Market, not only highlights the imbalance of supply and demand in certain specialties and locations, it also explores the ways physicians’ expectations are shifting about how and when they want to work.

Imbalance of Supply and Demand

While the physician shortage is impacting organizations of all types, the greatest need is for primary care providers in rural areas. Primary care placements, many at rural organizations, were up 24% in 2022 as compared to the previous two years. Rural areas also need specialists willing to treat broad panels of patients. However, the new generation of physicians is more likely to subspecialize, so finding generalists to take over for retiring physicians has become increasingly difficult. As a result, physicians who are willing to go rural are best poised to find attractive compensation and recruitment bonuses, as well as flexible schedules that allow for better work-life balance.

We are also seeing increased demand for mental health providers including psychiatrists, psychologists, and Advanced Practice Providers (APPs) specializing in mental health. We placed 85% more mental health providers in 2022 than we did in 2020. This is largely due to the spike in mental health issues seen nationally in recent years.

Higher Compensation and More Recruitment Incentives

Many organizations are finding physician recruitment success by increasing compensation packages and offering generous recruitment bonuses, and 74% of 2022 placements included a signing bonus. In some regions, we are also seeing compensation packages trending above the established MGMA medians.

Shifting Priorities

Competitive compensation and recruitment incentives play a significant role in attracting candidates, but work-life balance is increasingly important not only for recruitment, but retention as well. As burnout levels climb--65% of physicians in a 2022 survey said they experience burnout and 75% said their burnout has increased since the previous year--physicians of all ages want flexible schedules, generous paid time off, and when possible, an option to work remotely.

Employers are finding creative ways to offer work-life balance to physician candidates. A four-day work week has become an expectation among several specialties, but other attractive schedule options might include working seven days on/seven off, three weeks a month, or a remote work day per week. In addition to flexibility, employers are differentiating their jobs by offering more paid time off, lower “call” commitments, and support from medical scribes and APPs.

Increased Advanced Practice Provider Hiring

Jackson Physician Search placed four times the number of Nurse Practitioners in 2022 as we did in 2020. Rural organizations are finding success with hiring more APPs as they often seem more open to moving to rural locations than physicians. Other organizations are also leveraging APPs to provide clinical support with the aim of easing the burden placed on physicians. By making an APP available to provide general patient care, it frees up physicians to focus on more complex cases and procedures. Easing physician workload is critical for burnout mitigation and prevention, a strategy in which APPs play a significant role.

The Impact on Physicians

The job search experience of physicians will continue to vary widely depending on specialty, location, and the type of practice they seek. It’s not unusual for physicians to receive weekly or even daily calls from recruiters to gauge interest in any number of opportunities. This is unlikely to change any time soon. Physicians can expect to find opportunities with more generous recruitment incentives and/or greater flexibility in the areas with the most urgent needs.

That said, physician burnout is a problem for physicians in all specialties and locations, and many employers are responding by offering more flexibility and support to encourage work-life balance. This is critical for recruitment as well as retention. To keep physicians from burning out and retiring early or leaving the profession, we must revisit our views of what a physician career looks like today. Thus, instead of seeing “more flexibility and support” as a hiring trend, we must view it as what it should be--an evolution of the way physicians work.

Helen Falkner is the regional vice president of recruitment for the western division at Jackson Physician Search, a retained recruitment firm, specializing in the permanent recruitment of physicians, physician executives, and advanced practice providers to locations across the United States. As the daughter of a physician, and an Iowa native, Falkner has witnessed firsthand the impact that a great physician can have on a community. She joined the firm in 2012 at its headquarter office in Alpharetta, Ga. and now actively recruits while managing a team of recruiters out of Jackson Physician Search’s Denver office. Falkner earned a bachelors in business and marketing from the University of Iowa.

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