Doctors in Crisis: New survey reveals nearly 70% of physicians are disengaged from their employers

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By Tony Stajduhar, president of Jackson Physician Search

Few career paths are more noble – more revered – than that of a physician. But the stress of COVID-19, poor engagement, and rising burnout are causing some to wonder why they ever signed up for this. Doctors are in crisis, and a new survey shows that they are prepared to make career decisions that could negatively disrupt our healthcare system.

We went into COVID-19 with a looming physician shortage, one that is even worse in rural areas where 20% of the U.S. population lives, but where only 11% of doctors practice. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) last projected the shortage to be up to 139,000 physicians by 2033, but it is anybody’s guess how much it will grow post-pandemic. Will we ever catch up? Short of major regulatory changes such as increasing residency slots, making medical school more affordable, and revamping licensing requirements, it will be tough at best.

From October through November 2020, Jackson Physician Search surveyed practicing physicians and healthcare administrators to get insight on some of the industry’s toughest challenges: physician retention, engagement, and burnout.

There is promising news. Many future doctors are in the works. The “Fauci effect” has spurred new interest in public health, and in medical school enrollment in particular. AAMC reported a modest 1.7% increase in enrollment for 2020. However, there is significant growth on tap for 2021, with an approximate jump of 18% in medical school applications compared to last year.

With a physician turnover rate that historically hovers between 6-7% annually, it is alarming that 54% of physicians who responded to the survey said COVID-19 has changed their employment plans. Of those, 50% are considering leaving for a new healthcare employer, 21% said they may hang up their white coat for early retirement, and 15% are thinking about leaving the practice of medicine entirely. It is clear that the pandemic has intensified burnout and exhaustion, and it is causing physicians to evaluate if it is worth the strain on their quality of life.

The question is, will the industry heed their warning?

To ensure that patients have continued access to high-quality care, we need a strong recovery plan for our healthcare system – one that addresses the personal impact the pandemic has had on the physician community. And, it starts with improving physician engagement.

Even prior to the pandemic, physician engagement had been a major concern for healthcare administrators. Aligning physicians with organizational mission and values, as well as initiatives crucial to high-performing organizations requires a strategy in which physicians have a voice in the decision-making process.

Poor engagement can present as a destructive “us versus them” mentality. But when physicians are highly engaged with their employers, the metrics for patient care, quality, efficiency, and even organizational financial performance all improve. A Gallup study found high engagement is also linked to an increase in inpatient referrals (51%), outpatient referrals (3%), productivity levels (26%), and additional patient revenue to the tune of approximately $460,000 per year.

But more engaged, practicing doctors doesn’t solve all the problems. Healthcare organizations want to retain their doctors, but we have to figure out how to do a better job. Of those who responded to the survey, 83% of physicians said there was no retention program in place. Administrators had a different view, with 30% reporting the same. More concerning, physicians and administrators both felt that even when a retention program did exist, it wasn’t favorable. Only 2% of physicians and just 10% of administrators rated it highly. Considering that a specialist vacancy can result in $1 million in lost revenue, coupled with the reality that it often requires 6-12 months to recruit a physician at a cost of $250,000 for sourcing, relocation, and signing bonus, healthcare organizations need to ensure that their physician staff is aware of and buys into the retention strategy. 

Like any industry, there will always be unavoidable physician turnover. Yet, studies show that better engagement is part of the solution to both burnout and turnover. No effective physician engagement strategy can be approached as a one-size-fits-all or a one-and-done task. Rather, engagement efforts need to meet the unique needs of the individual physicians and be reviewed often, making two-way communication between physicians and leadership the first and most important predictor of success. Following through with annual engagement surveys can highlight areas for improvement.

At the end of the day, and at the end of a long shift, physicians want the same experience: to practice medicine with some degree of autonomy, to advocate for their patients, and know that their administration values, recognizes, and respects their contributions to the organization’s success.

About Tony Stajduhar

With more than 30 years of experience in healthcare strategy, Tony Stajduhar is the industry-recognized leader and innovator in the recruitment of physicians and advanced practice providers. As President of Jackson Physician Search, he leads the most respected firm in the nation known for exceptional customer service, powered by proven recruitment strategy and search technology.

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Jackson Physician Search

Jackson Physician Search is an established industry leader in physician recruitment and pioneered the recruitment methodologies standard in the industry today. The firm specializes in the permanent recruitment of physicians, physician leaders and advanced practice providers for hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers and medical groups across the United States. Headquartered in Alpharetta, Ga., the company is recognized for its track record of results built on client trust and transparency of processes and fees. Jackson Physician Search is part of the Jackson Healthcare® family of companies. For more information, visit www.jacksonphysiciansearch.com

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