As a population ages, demands on its associated healthcare system naturally increase. Such is the case in the U.S., which faces a shortage of up to 90,000 physicians by 2025.
Couple that increased demand with an aging physician population — and the lack of newcomers to fill the shoes of the retiring physicians, particularly in rural areas — and we have a perfect storm. These supply-demand issues in the medical field must be addressed swiftly.
Many facilities are attempting to meet the demand, providing incentives to attract physicians to join their team or embracing new models such as locum tenens to fill staffing gaps. Meanwhile, lawmakers in some areas of the country have moved to expand the scopes of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
In hospitals and clinics that haven't managed to fill gaps caused by shortages, physicians are struggling with burnout — a prolonged response to job-related stress that makes workers exhausted, cynical, and ineffective.
The Physicians Foundation collected feedback from more than 17,000 physicians for its 2016 survey, finding 49 percent of respondents experience feelings of burnout always or often; 80 percent of the same respondents said they felt overextended or at capacity, with no time to treat additional patients.
Tips to Keep Physicians Energized
The growing amount of burnout among physicians is exacerbated by the physician shortage. Physicians are required to work harder to pick up the slack, routinely seeing more patients in the same 8-hour workday than their predecessors. While some might argue physicians should simply see fewer patients, they would leave money on the table and could negatively affect patient care through increased wait times.
This situation might seem hopeless, but there are a few ways to curtail the burnout prevalent in healthcare:
1. Expand scopes of practice for NPs and PAs
Lawmakers in several states have given nurse practitioners and physician assistants much more responsibility in recent years, which is helping to address the physician shortage. Nurse practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs) are more than capable of completing many of the procedures traditionally reserved for physicians. If more state legislatures would allow NPs and PAs to take on these responsibilities, it could reduce the burden on physicians and the healthcare industry at large.
Fewer procedures for a physician means less stress, more time with patients, and perhaps even fewer hours of work. When physicians can share their growing workload with other qualified professionals, they're less likely to burn out.
2. Provide incentives to physicians
The physician shortage didn't become an issue solely because fewer physicians are available — it's also rooted in where they go. Rural communities are particularly underserved in terms of medical care because many physicians choose to practice in urban environments.
One way to encourage physicians to join rural facilities is by providing financial incentives such as student loan payback. Physician debt is a serious issue, and reimbursement programs alleviate the physician shortage in rural areas while helping new doctors pay down their loans.
3. Experiment with alternative staffing models
It's difficult to predict when physicians will retire, quit the profession, or decide to move. Staffing models such as locum tenens allow a facility to fill unexpected gaps in coverage with qualified physicians.
If a veteran doctor wants to take a vacation or work fewer hours, a short-term appointment can provide her with that freedom. Many physicians who have struggled with burnout opt for locum tenens work because they enjoy the cycle; they work hard for a set amount of time, and then they can recover with a break before they begin a new assignment.
As our population continues to age, healthcare leaders must make innovative, responsive decisions to meet the demand for qualified professionals. If the industry doesn't adapt, patients and doctors alike will suffer.
Rob Indresano is president and COO of Barton Associates, a national recruiting and staffing firm based in the Boston area that specializes in temporary healthcare assignments. Rob is responsible for managing operations as well as the company's strategic vision. Before joining the Barton team, Rob was vice president and general counsel for Oxford Global Resources Inc. and corporate counsel for Oracle Corp.