Last year, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offered new research on the physician shortage, which is now projected to reach as high as 120,000 doctors by the year 2030. This ongoing disparity between supply and demand continues to drive the cycle of physician turnover.
Even the most desirable locations in the country are losing doctors to relocation. Better pay, the possibility of an improved work/life balance, and the allure of easy mobility outweigh any retention program to keep them on staff. These are the same reasons more doctors are practicing locum tenens than ever before as well.
Impact of physician vacancies
A physician vacancy can cost a practice up to $1 million annually in lost revenue upon leaving the role vacant. Searching for a full-time (employed) replacement doctor can take up to nine months. Every day the position goes unfilled is another day of lost revenue and fails to ensure the continuity of care your patient base has come to expect.
Practices cannot afford to go without a doctor for other, nonmonetary reasons that have just as large an impact. Take the issue of burnout for example. We recently learned that one physician commits suicide in this country every day. That fact puts them above all other professions, according to the American Psychiatric Association. However, keep in mind burnout is not specific to doctors. The burden felt by the remaining staff continually asked to do more with less is a real problem throughout an entire organization.
Continuity of care
Practices should strongly consider utilizing locum tenens coverage to ensure the continuity of care, not just in times of physician vacancy, but as a proactive measure before it occurs. Similar to how a baseball team relies on its bullpen to relieve its starting pitchers, facilities need to build a bench of qualified providers.
Locum tenens should be used during any full-time physicians’ leave of absence, whether scheduled or unscheduled. This includes vacation, maternity leave, or bereavement. Practices should also become familiar with temporary physicians as part of a supplemental staffing strategy during peak periods of patient demand throughout the year.
In addition to locum tenens physicians, use of advanced practitioners such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants can help practices that are short-staffed. Outside of staffing solutions, a focus on practice efficiencies enabling the business to do more with less can also help offset physician vacancy. This may include the use of technology that reduces patient cancellations, improving overall customer service, implementing employee retention programs, or any initiative that allows doctors to focus solely on valuable face time with more patients.
The level of care offered by locum tenens doctors was proven again in a 2017 JAMA report that found no difference in the 30-day mortality rates between locum physicians and their full-time counterparts via a landmark study of almost 2 million patients.
Mike Gianas of Redemption Creative LLC is a Dallas-based healthcare marketing consultant with the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations® (NALTO®), the only professional association of temporary physician staffing firms committed to a code of ethics and to maintaining the highest industry standards.