About 1 in 10 physician jobs are unfilled, hospitals say

Despite the recession, hospitals are still seeing a doctor shortage, a survey by one physician placement company finds.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Dec. 7, 2009

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The health care system added more jobs in October, but efforts to meet the increasing demand for services are hampered by a worsening physician shortage, leaving some institutions struggling to fill some jobs, according to a pair of recently released reports.

"A friend once said to me that, without doctors, hospitals are just mediocre hotels with average food," said Kurt Mosley, vice president of business development at AMN Healthcare Services Inc. "Without the doctors, hospitals would not exist. There is such a demand for doctors. There are so many opportunities." AMN is the largest health care staffing firm in the country.

According to a report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Nov. 6, the economy as a whole lost 190,000 jobs in October and the unemployment rate increased to 10.2%. The health care sector, however, added 28,500 jobs, with 10,000 of those in hospitals and 4,800 in physician offices.

This agency does not break down numbers by profession. But a separate report issued by AMN indicated many clinical professionals, particularly physicians, are in short supply.

AMN, in partnership with the national Council on Physician and Nurse Supply, surveyed 284 hospital chief executive officers, during June through August, about physician job openings at their facilities.

Approximately 95% of the hospital CEOs said there was a shortage of physicians, with a vacancy rate of 11%, meaning a little more than one in 10 physician job openings are unfilled.

About 34% of CEOs had increased the number of physicians on staff within the previous six months, but 46% said patient access to care had been compromised by shortfalls in the number of physicians.

The amount of money put into physician recruitment has, however, gone down, although this report suggests it most likely will return to pre-recession levels soon. According to third quarter results from AMN, a publicly traded company, revenue from locum tenens physicians decreased 12% over the past year. Money earned from placing physicians decreased by 31%. But this survey found that 54% of CEOs plan to increase physician recruitment efforts.

"It seems to have hit the bottom, and business is coming back," Mosley said. "It wasn't that the demand was not there, but recruiting a doctor is a half a million dollar outlay. It wasn't that [hospitals] didn't want to recruit. They had no funds to do it."

Merritt Hawkins & Associates is the company owned by AMN that handles permanent physician placement. Staff Care manages locum tenens assignments.

Nurses also remain in short supply, although this is not felt as acutely as the physician shortage, with 91% of hospital CEOs noting a shortfall. Some 32% of institutions had increased their number of nurses, and the vacancy rate for nurses was 6%. Only 8% of hospital CEOs said access to care was compromised because of a lack of nurses.

The recession has helped ease the nursing shortage, 27% of hospital CEOs said. Experts say the economic downturn brought retired nurses or those working in other industries back into the field and many nurses who had been working part-time expanded their hours. Shortages are expected to return to previous levels as the economy recovers.

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