COVID-19 causes unprecedented drop in physician demand

By | July 15, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • Physicians face an uncertain employment environment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey from recruitment firm Merritt Hawkins, a company of AMN Healthcare. The report estimates that the demand for physicians — which has always been intense — declined by about 30% in recent weeks. While it expects the market for doctors to bounce back, the company said the current situation was unprecedented.
  • Demand for some specialists is expected to decrease due to patient volumes being cut by shelter-at-home orders, although the need for emergency medicine physicians, pulmonologists/critical care physicians and infectious disease specialists are projected to increase. Demand for psychiatrists is also rising due to increased mental health issues created by the COVID-19 crisis.
  • In addition to the demand for physicians decreasing, Merritt Hawkins believes that overall physician pay will be depressed as well. However, it did not provide any specific estimates, saying it was too early to do so. It also believes that incentive bonuses in the future would be more closely tied to how doctors use telehealth services and monthly revenue intake rather than patient volumes.

Dive Insight:

The reward for the years of grueling work to become a physician was essentially lifetime guaranteed employment. However, COVID-19 appears to have upended that decades-old expectation almost overnight.

Salaries for several specialties unrelated to COVID-19 saw reductions in Merritt Hawkins’ 2020 forecast. For example, year-over-year pay for pediatricians plunged 8.7%; gastroenterologists dropped 7.7%; non-invasive cardiologists declined 7.3%. Hospitalist compensation was down 5.2%.

The average signing bonus for a new physician also dropped, from $ 32,692 in the last forecast to $ 27,893 — a decline of 14.7%.

“Over our 33-year history, most physicians had little difficulty finding a job opportunity, with multiple offers to choose from,” Merritt Hawkins EVP Travis Singleton said in a statement. “Today, we are seeing a growing number who are unemployed with a limited number of roles available. This is unprecedented. COVID-19 essentially flipped the physician job market in a matter of 60 days.”

A prior survey conducted by Merritt Hawkins in April concluded that 21% of physicians had been furloughed or saw their payments cut as a result of COVID-19. Labor unrest among other hospital workers has also been on the rise as a result of job and pay cuts, although many providers have begun rehiring those who had been laid off.

Not all was dark news for doctors. Those who are playing key roles in treating COVID-19 patients are in higher demand. As a result, for radiologists, pay was up 9.3%; for pulmonologists it increased 7.7%, according to Merritt Hawkins.

The decrease in demand for doctors is temporary, the report suggests. 

“COVID-19 will not permanently change these market conditions, and demand for physicians will begin to rebound before the end of year,” Merritt Hawkins concludes.

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