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As healthcare workforce evolves, so must physician recruitment and retainment strategies

Mass resignations after COVID-19 diminished the healthcare workforce. How can the industry change to satisfy the new cohort of providers?
By admin
Jan 24, 2023, 11:00 AM

Compared to just a few short years ago, the healthcare workforce looks almost unrecognizable.  COVID-19 shocked the industry to its core, accelerating burnout and mass resignations like never before. Healthcare companies lost more than half a million employees per month in 2022, and up to 47 percent of clinicians are considering joining their fleeing colleagues in the next two to three years. 

The hemorrhaging of talent has dramatically altered everyday operations for employers – occasionally for the better, in the sense that shortages have encouraged automation of tasks that should have been digitized a long time ago, but more frequently for the worse. The staffing squeeze often results in reduced care access, patient safety concerns, and poor experiences for consumers. 

The pandemic put these issues front and center for healthcare executives and decision makers, but they aren’t new concerns. Burnout has been a major problem since the start of the digital age, especially among physicians who feel overwhelmed by documentation requirements, administrative red tape, financial constraints, and the stresses of being asked to do more with less for patients who have incredibly complex needs. 

Simmering dissatisfaction has contributed to one in five physicians planning their exit in the next two years, contributing to an estimated shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034. 

But again, the dire statistics hide something of a silver lining. The physicians who do remain, as well as those working their way through training, are more diverse than ever and are well positioned to attack several notable gaps in the system, including shortages of primary care and behavioral health providers. 

In a buyer’s market, however, employers that hope to attract and retain high-value talent will need to go the extra mile to meet physicians’ evolving needs for autonomy, flexibility, and holistic support. 

Current US physician demographic makeup

The most recent data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) shows that up-and-coming physicians are more likely to be female and slightly more likely to self-identify as members of racially and ethnically diverse groups. 

Interest in primary care also remains strong, as internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics continue to attract the most medical residents and fellows. 

Key highlights from the new report include: 

  • In 2021, 47.3 percent of the residents and fellows in accredited programs were female, up from 32.6 percent of active physicians in 2014.  These clinicians primarily work in pediatrics and OB-GYN specialties. 
  • Between 2016 and 2021, the number of psychiatry residents has grown by more than 26 percent, potentially helping to address massive shortfalls in behavioral health across the nation. 
  • The physician population continues to become more diverse, albeit slowly and insufficiently, with 20.6 percent of physicians identifying as Asian, 6.9 percent as Hispanic, and 5.7 percent as Black or African American. 
  • More than half (53.3 percent) of physicians are under the age of 55, ranging from 91 percent of sports medicine physicians to just 7.6 percent of pulmonologists. 

Employers need to stay on top of these evolving demographics in the healthcare workforce, but they also need to get proactive about evolving attitudes. Both new and established physicians are getting more vocal about the need for better digital tools and solid backing from their bosses to meet administrative demands, maintain their passion for patient care, and avoid burning out. 

Strategies for recruiting and retaining top quality physicians 

Developing a successful physician recruitment pipeline – and keeping those professions in the organization for the long term – requires a multifaceted approach merging traditional HR perks, like competitive salaries and time off, with advanced digital tools to simplify workflows and a culture that prioritizes staff wellness and empowerment. 

Commit to personalized professional development 

Every worker wants a clear and accessible pathway toward advancement. Organizations should develop a career roadmap for prospective employees that includes opportunities to take on additional responsibility and learn about different areas of healthcare, including informatics and health IT development – all with appropriate compensation bumps included.   

Conversations about career goals should take place during the interview phase and regularly during the physician’s tenure so that employers and employees both feel as if the opportunity is a good fit for current and future needs. 

Invest in digital infrastructure to reduce burdens and burnout 

Health IT is a powerful tool for making a physician’s job easier, but it has to be done right. Digital infrastructure must be optimized to simplify access to data, communicate with care teams effectively, reduce unnecessary clicks and sign-ins, and make it easier to complete administrative requirements. 

To the extent possible, physicians should be actively involved in choosing and implementing new technologies that affect their clinical practice and decision-making processes. Following the principles of human-centered design, which encourage end-user participation from beginning to end, can help physicians take ownership of digital workflows and feel more in control of their day-to-day activities. 

All end-users, including physicians, should be offered extensive training on these systems and regular refreshers on approved processes to avoid workarounds and data integrity issues. These sessions should be collaborative, not punitive, and be tailored to each user persona to ensure high levels of compliance and understanding. 

Offer flexibility – and make it possible to take advantage of it 

Physicians are motivated and committed people, but they are also humans with families, responsibilities, and the need to relax and recharge. Many employers purport to offer flexibility in working hours or settings, but then make it impossible to take advantage of these benefits due to lack of back-up or pressure from supervisors. 

Organizations need to anticipate patterns in patient flow and associated staffing needs, as much as is possible in healthcare. Health IT tools can help to optimize staffing and resource utilization to assist with these tasks, but success truly lies in developing a culture of caring and wellness that doesn’t make staff feel guilty for using their PTO. 

Designate clinical champions to participate in organizational decision-making 

Physicians are increasingly moving into the C-suite, bringing a valuable clinical perspective to the business side of healthcare. But front-line physicians need even more representation to address their shared concerns, such as clinical autonomy, organizational red tape, billing issues, and the ability to address patient needs holistically. 

Clinical champions embedded in quality improvement projects and big purchasing decisions can help to alleviate some of these concerns by giving physicians a more direct voice. Organizations should encourage physicians to take on these internal leadership roles and work with their peers to identify emerging issues and address concerns. 

Committing to these strategies can make a healthcare organization more attractive as a place to work and grow, even in the midst of deep worker shortages. As healthcare workforce demographics change and physicians start to expect more from their workplaces, leaders will need to rise to the challenges of creating a positive environment for physicians to maximize their skills in patient care. 


Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry.  Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.  She can be reached at jennifer@inklesscreative.com.


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