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The Current Physician Job Market

Evan Winter

Throughout 2020 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the previously accelerating physician job market took a turn. As hospital systems and other practices began to see less patients coming through their doors, physician hours, pay, and recruitment efforts were cut. In April, a Merritt Hawkins survey showed that 21% of physicians were already experiencing pay cuts or had been furloughed. Those trends would continue throughout much of year, but in the final quarter, as approval for vaccines approached, the mood surrounding physician recruitment began to shift. With the rest of the rebounding United States economy, the healthcare system is poised to quickly return to, if not exceed, pre-pandemic levels of demand. 

To fully understand the current state of physician jobs, we must consider where things were prior to the pandemic. For many years, the U.S. has faced a growing physician shortage. In April of 2019, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) projected a shortage of nearly 122,000 physicians by the year 2032. That prediction was primarily based on a growing, aging population of both patients and physicians themselves. The U.S. population is expected to rise at least 10% by 2032, and the Census Bureau anticipates there being more seniors than children 17 or younger for the first time in history. Additionally, around one third of current physicians will turn 65 by that point and likely retire. The loss of that many active physicians, and the increased need for medical care among seniors, will severely threaten availability of treatment. 

The lull in job supply through 2020 seems merely a small delay in the increasing demand for practicing physicians. Largely, average salaries remained level, and both patient volume and recruitment are already beginning to recover. As early as last June, a Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) poll discovered that 87% of practices had recovered some amount of patient volume lost at the onset of the pandemic. This has in part been attributed to the swift adaptation of telehealth throughout the U.S. healthcare system. According to a Medscape survey conducted in February, 2021, the average salary for primary care physicians only dropped from $243,000 in 2019 to $242,000 in 2020, a mere 0.4% change. Average salary for specialists dropped by just under 0.6% to $344,000. A combination of telehealth utilization, government relief, increasing demand for post-lockdown treatment, and employment contract renegotiation helped keep physician compensation fairly stable. 

In September, MGMA published an article stating they only expect physician compensation and job availability to rise in 2021. The sudden influx of patients as vaccinations become more widespread and delay of recruitment in the face of a worsening physician shortage will create a significant hiring boom. Not only will more patients return, but they are likely to come back with greater treatment needs than were required before the pandemic hit. Even with the adoption of telehealth practices, recent research has shown that by delaying in-person visits and sometimes routine medical care altogether, some diseases and other conditions have gone undiagnosed. For example, cancer screenings fell sharply last year, as much as 85% for breast cancer, and researchers worry that could lead to an onslaught of advanced cases in the coming months. Even elective treatments are likely to return with greater frequency, since many patients simply delayed their procedures. 

Despite the physician job market becoming somewhat stagnant last year, it is expected to make up any shortcomings in the next six months, if not sooner. All the conditions which created widespread opportunity for physicians prior to the pandemic remain in place, and as patients re-engage with the healthcare system, demand for care is likely to skyrocket. Given the time it takes to recruit and onboard new physicians, practices are beginning to consider increased hiring efforts for the near future, if they haven't already begun. Regardless, physicians who need to start a new job within the next year and a half should begin their search as soon as possible to make sure they are aware of all options. Getting a head start on job searching helps ensure securement of a position in any type of market.

Whether you are searching for your first attending position or are a seasoned physician looking to make a change, Resolve can help with every step of your job search. Many available positions are never advertised by employers or third-party recruiters, so we work to uncover those hidden opportunities for you. Let Resolve handle your search from CV review and interviewing, to contract review and signing, so you can focus on your training or current position. Visit our job search page to learn more.