In July, 2012, the US economy produced roughly the same volume of goods and services as it did five years earlier with five million fewer workers. Yet, during the first four years of the recession (May 2007 to May 2011), the US health system, despite slowing or declining utilization, added 1.149 million workers. Key sectors, specifically hospitals and physician offices, grew their workforces despite declining admissions and office visit volume. (Employment data in this post comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) National 4-digit NAICS Industry-Specific Estimates from May 2007 and May 2011.)
Compared to the rest of the economy, health care seems to exist in an alternate economic universe. This would be good news, rather than a problem, if we were not borrowing roughly half of every dollar of general revenue the federal government is spending on health care and if employers were not robbing their workers of wage increases to fund their health benefits.
Hospitals and physician offices saw declines in their core activity in the past few years. Hospital admissions have been flat the past five years, and have shrunk the past two. Even hospital outpatient volume growth has subsided into the low single digits, only partially offsetting the lost admissions. Yet hospital employment rose by over 220,000 workers, or 4.4 percent from mid-2007 to mid-2011.
By DAVID E. WILLIAMS
I’m amazed at just how quickly physician employment has swung from small independent practices to hospital-based employment. I’ve heard about it anecdotally from medical societies and malpractice carriers who are seeing their constituents shift, and have certainly observed the shift from individual physicians, but I’m still surprised how fast it’s occurring. A new report from recruiter Merritt Hawkins tells the clearest story I’ve seen:
- In the last 12 months, 56% of physician search assignments have been for hospital jobs, whereas 5 years ago it was just 23%
- Just 2% of assignments were for independent, solo practice docs compared with 17% 5 years ago
Doctors are becoming more like regular wage earners, albeit high paid ones. There are some strong drivers of this trend including the need to support health information technology, comply with regulations and deal with health plans. There’s also a desire on the part of a younger, increasingly female physician workforce to have a better balance between work and home life. If anything the forces pulling physicians into hospital employment will strengthen in the near term with the arrival of Accountable Care Organizations and other forms of deep integration.
Yet when a pendulum swings it tends to swing too far. Especially considering how quickly things have moved, I do expect that there will be some backlash to the rush into employment. It’s really not all that much fun having a boss, especially when that boss is a big, bureaucratic hospital with other things on its priority list besides MD satisfaction and career development. Patients may not like it so much either. I know I’d rather see a physician who’s not too tightly tied to a hospital.
So what will the reversal look like? I don’t think it’s going to be doctors rushing to put up their own shingles or buy practices of retiring docs like in the old days. Instead I expect to see a new breed of physician employers who recognize what’s needed to make docs happy, treat patients well, manage compliance, and still make money. One example is so-called direct primary care practices such as Qliance. Time will tell what other forms develop.