the firm reported.
“Rather than having many practice opportunities to choose from, physicians now may have to compete to secure practice opportunities that meet their needs,” the authors wrote in Merritt Hawkins’ report on the impact of COVID-19.
Most of the report concerns physician recruitment from April 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020. The data were mostly derived from searches that Merritt Hawkins conducted before the effects of the pandemic was fully felt.
Family medicine was again the most sought-after specialty, as it has been for the past 14 years. But demand for primary care doctors – including family physicians, internists, and pediatricians – leveled off, and average starting salaries for primary care doctors dropped during 2019-2020. In contrast, the number of searches conducted for nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) increased by 54%, and their salaries increased slightly.
To explain the lackluster prospects for primary care before the pandemic, the authors cited research showing that patients were turning away from the traditional office visit model. At the same time, there was a rise in visits to NPs and PAs, including those in urgent care centers and retail clinics.
As a result of decreased demand for primary care physicians and the rising prevalence of telehealth, Merritt Hawkins expects primary care salaries to drop overall. With telehealth generating a larger portion of revenues, “it is uncertain whether primary care physicians will be able to sustain levels of reimbursement that were prevalent pre-COVID even at such time as the economy is improved and utilization increases,” the authors reported.
Demand for specialists was increasing prior to the COVID-19 crisis, partly as a result of the aging of the population. Seventy-eight percent of all searches were for medical specialists, compared with 67% 5 years ago. However, the pandemic has set back specialist searches. “Demand and compensation for specialists also will change as a result of COVID-19 in response to declines in the volume of medical procedures,” according to the authors.
In contrast, the recruitment of doctors who are on the front line of COVID-19 care is expected to increase. Among the fields anticipated to be in demand are emergency department specialists, infectious disease specialists, and pulmonology/critical care physicians. Travis Singleton, executive vice president of Merritt Hawkins, said in an interview that this trend is already happening and will accelerate as COVID-19 hot spots arise across the country.
Specialists in different fields received either higher or lower offers than during the previous year. Starting salaries for noninvasive cardiologists, for example, dropped 7.3%; gastroenterologists earned 7.7% less; and neurologists, 6.9% less. In contrast, orthopedic surgeons saw offers surge 16.7%; radiologists, 9.3%; and pulmonologists/critical care specialists, 7.7%.
Physicians were offered salaries plus bonuses in three-quarters of searches. Relative value unit–based production remained the most common basis for bonuses. Quality/value-based metrics were used in computing 64% of bonuses – up from 56% the previous year – but still determined only 11% of total physician compensation.