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How the Demand for Primary Care Is Changing Physician Recruitment

April 02, 2019

How the Demand for Primary Care Is Changing Physician Recruitment

By Tom Florence, Executive Vice President of Recruiting for Merritt Hawkins

Primary care is a hot area in terms of opportunities for job seekers.

Demand for primary care physicians (PCPs) is high, and supply is low, which translates to a new hiring environment for candidates and employers alike. The industry is seeing more innovative offers that involve unique work environments and creative compensation packages, as clinicians are seeking contracts that stand out in terms of incentives, pay and more flexible work schedules.

Whether seeking employment by a health system or a partnership track in a private practice, physicians are looking for career opportunities that fit their lifestyle. They expect to be busy, but not overwhelmed—and of course they want to be well compensated.

It’s like a buyer’s market; with more open positions and fewer primary care physicians to go around, today’s candidates are more likely to get what they want. Thus, employers are having to make some adjustments or face significant consequences. When primary care positions go unfilled, not only do the communities suffer from not having enough providers to deliver care, but the hospitals suffer financially as physicians are significant economic engines for hospitals.   

What’s behind the high level of demand in primary care?

There aren’t enough primary care practitioners to take care of today’s growing population, according to researchers, and the gap in care is expected to grow. This is due to a number of factors, including:

  • Changing priorities. The country’s growing emphasis on disease prevention, chronic care and new health care delivery models rely heavily on primary care physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

  • Trends toward specialization. A large percentage of new physicians are choosing specialties outside of primary care due to higher average salaries that can more quickly pay off medical school loans, etc.

  • A growing shortage of physicians in primary care. Statisticians note that the number of physicians hasn’t kept up with the growth in population, and by 2030, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has projected a shortfall of between 14,800 and 49,300 primary care physicians.

  • The aging of America. Older patients need more healthcare services, and approximately 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, according to Pew Research. Baby boomer physicians are also expected to start retiring in record numbers over the next few years.

We’ve already seen the effects of changing supply and demand in our own job placements at Merritt Hawkins.

For instance, 2018 represented the 12th year in a row that family medicine physicians topped the list of the most requested specialties among thousands of search assignments across the country. Nurse practitioners—the vast majority of which are in primary care—were the third most-requested placement, followed by internists at No. 4; pediatricians ranked a little farther down the list at No. 13. This data was gathered for our annual Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruiting Incentives.

What employers are offering primary care candidates

As the nation’s largest physician recruitment company, Merritt Hawkins has had a front row view of the latest trends in primary care physician recruitment and placement. We have noted several strategies are becoming more common in contracts across the country, including:

  • Richer, more diverse compensation packages. We have seen a steady increase in starting salaries in primary care over the last few years. The 2018 Review found the average starting salary for primary care physicians was $244,000, up from $228,000 in 2016.  In addition, employers are offering richer compensation packages in terms of insurance, paid time off, CME allowances and student loan forgiveness.
  • New sign-on bonuses. Although the concept has been around for some time, we are seeing new models for how sign-on bonuses are being constructed. The average sign-on bonus for primary care physicians was $30,035, according to the 2018 Review, however we are seeing some offers with signing bonuses of $100,000+ with a retention component, where the physician may need to stay five years in order to collect the full bonus.
  • More flexible schedules. In the 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians, conducted for The Physicians Foundation by Merritt Hawkins, 78% of physicians said they experience burnout on some level. The attention to work–life balance and concern about physician burnout have forced healthcare employers to offer more flexible schedules, like 4-day workweeks, either with full-time hours or for .8 FTE positions with full benefits. Others options involve working slightly longer days and getting an extra day off every other week. A favorite perk for candidates is often the ability to pick the schedule they prefer.
  • Medical scribes, dedicated staff and other special services. According to The Physicians Foundation survey, 39% of physicians revealed that electronic medical records are the most dissatisfying aspect of practicing medicine. In light of this reality, more groups are offering medical scribes or other staff to relieve physicians of some of these responsibilities. Some practices also offer a dedicated NP or PA to support a physician’s practice. And in some situations, the availability of hospitalists can allow a primary care physician to maintain true “office hours” with no call, or limited call, in an outpatient practice.
  • Specialized interests within primary care. No two jobs, or two candidates, are exactly alike. For instance, some family practitioners may prefer roles that include obstetrics, or may have an interest in providing telemedicine services. If candidates are seeking a certain type of experience or practice model, our recruiting consultants are finding employers who are more and more willing to accommodate them.

At Merritt Hawkins we have the privilege of placing primary care physicians in opportunities across the nation and it is clear that the market is changing. As the demand for primary care physicians increases, hospital leadership and physician recruiters must continue to evolve their strategies to attract doctors and remain competitive.

To learn more about the trends in recruitment salaries, bonuses, allowances and other incentives offered across specialties for physicians and advanced practitioners, download a copy of the 2018 Review.

About the author:

Tom Florence has more than 20 years of experience in physician recruiting, and currently serves as Executive Vice President of Recruitment for Merritt Hawkins. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.


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