As Dr. L handed in her resignation letter, she felt a weight lifting off of her shoulders. The strain of the pandemic had certainly contributed to the load, but the stress began to mount long before 2020. She had grown weary of working around the clock, the endless hours of charting, and the administrators always asking for more, more, more. She only had so much to give, and by way of a resignation letter, she was letting them know she had nothing left. Dr. L wasn’t exactly sure what her next steps would be, but she knew she couldn’t go on as she had been. If the pandemic had taught her anything, it was that life is too short to be unhappy.
Unfortunately, Dr. L’s story is not unique. It reflects the current experience of thousands of physicians across the U.S. While their specific job complaints may vary, the result is the same. They are changing jobs, cutting their hours, or retiring from the profession completely–and for organizations still battling an unrelenting pandemic, the timing couldn’t be worse.
What, if anything, could Dr. L’s employer have done to make her think twice before calling it quits? Discovering the answer to this question has never been more important.
A Mass Exodus of Physicians
If your healthcare organization hasn’t felt the impact of the Great Resignation yet, chances are, it’s coming. In a July 2021 survey conducted by MGMA and Jackson Physician Search, nearly half of physicians said, over the past year, they had considered leaving their employer (48%) or taking early retirement (43%).
Considering an exit is one thing, but more recent data suggests this desire to quit or cut back is more than a passing thought. An October 2021 MGMA STAT poll found one in three medical practices saw a physician leave or retire early in 2021 due to burnout. According to a survey published in December 2021 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, one in five physicians report they are planning to leave their current practice in the next 24 months. One in three plan to reduce their hours.
Why are Physicians Leaving Their Jobs?
While it’s easy to point to COVID-19 as the reason for the mass exodus, those who monitor industry trends know that physician burnout is not a new problem. A 2019 article by the AMA reported burnout data for physicians, as well as the general population, between 2011 and 2017. While the levels of physician burnout improved over that time period, in 2017, 44% of physicians who took the survey reported at least one symptom of burnout. For perspective, during the same time period, 28% of the general population reported feeling burnout in their jobs. Fast forward to the present, and the levels of physician burnout are even higher. In the MGMA and Jackson Physician Search study, 61% of physicians reported they were currently experiencing burnout.
The correlation of increased physician burnout and the presence of COVID-19 is not to be discounted. However, physicians have long lamented their lack of independence, diminishing influence, lack of support, administrative burdens, pressure to produce, and of course, long hours. COVID didn’t create these problems, but like so many things, it has compounded them.
How to Improve Physician Job Satisfaction
The problems driving physicians to leave their jobs didn’t happen overnight, and there is no quick solution. That said, there are a few immediate actions healthcare administrators can take to help physicians feel heard in this moment of crisis and give them hope of improved circumstances.
1. Focus on Communication
“How are you holding up?” These five words, when asked regularly and followed by active listening, could be the difference between a physician who feels heard in the organization and one that feels like a cog in the wheel. In the MGMA and JPS survey, physicians ranked 2-way communication as the most important driver of their own job satisfaction.
While it’s nice to be asked how they’re doing, physicians need more from leadership than casual conversations about their professional well-being. In the blog post, 4 Ways to Improve Communication and Increase Physician Engagement, we discuss the importance of talking to physicians, encouraging honesty, inviting participation and solutions, and measuring results. Focus on improving communication between physicians and management, and you will address a core need that too many healthcare employers are not meeting.
2. Reward and Recognize
While money can’t solve all problems, it can certainly help. In the aforementioned survey, 85% of physicians said additional compensation was very or somewhat important to their job satisfaction. If at all possible, consider rewarding your physicians for their perseverance with a performance bonus or salary bump. The amount may not be as important as the recognition itself.
While additional compensation may be the preferred form of recognition for a job well done, if that’s not possible, find other ways to recognize the efforts of your physicians. Time off, paid sabbaticals, and reduced call are all ways to reward a job well done and improve job satisfaction. Of course, if your physicians are stretched thin to meet patient demand, these types of rewards may also prove to be impossible. If this is the case, consider a formal letter of recognition from leadership to acknowledge the physician’s extraordinary efforts and provide assurance of the steps being taken to improve circumstances.
3. Review and Modify Burdensome Administrative Processes
If you are listening to physicians, you will most likely learn that some of their frustration stems from the excessive administrative burdens placed upon them. In the 2022 Medscape Physician Burnout and Depression Report, “too many bureaucratic tasks” topped the list of burnout causes with 60% of physicians listing it as a cause. In the MGMA and JPS survey, 72% of physicians said reducing the administrative burden in their jobs was very or somewhat important to improving satisfaction. If employers hope to retain physicians, they must be willing to review and modify the processes creating undue strain on physicians.
4. Implement a Physician Retention Plan
The job of a physician is tough, and employers must anticipate the challenges they will face and have a plan to support them every step of the way. It begins with offering a personalized physician onboarding program and provides a clear path to increased compensation, bonuses, and leadership opportunities. This type of planning should be the basis of a formal physician retention program, something offered by only 5% of employers, according to the JPS whitepaper: On the Verge of a Physician Turnover Epidemic.
5. Recruit Support
If your physicians are stretched thin, the most helpful thing healthcare administration can do may be to hire providers who can support the current team. Whether that’s rounding out the care team with advanced practice providers or recruiting additional physicians, partner with a national physician recruitment firm to help you develop a medical staffing plan that ensures your practice has enough providers to adequately support the community demand.
Improving job satisfaction for physicians is critical to stopping the recent wave of resignations and retirements. While organizations are scrambling to recruit replacements, they are missing opportunities to address the circumstances of their current physicians, likely causing job satisfaction at the organization to further decline.
In the case of Dr. L, if her manager had acknowledged the need for change and taken steps to improve the situation, she may have given the job another chance. After all, most physicians don’t want to uproot their lives and start over in a different job. If the current employer is willing to make changes, the physician will be more willing to stay.
If you are struggling to recruit and retain physicians to support your current team, Jackson Physician Search would love the opportunity to help. Contact us today.