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It's not just primary care physicians that are in demand, specialists are quickly becoming a commodity

Results show 74 percent of recruiting assignments in the last year were for specialists, up 7 percent from three years ago, report says.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

Demand for primary care physicians is high to be sure, but hospitals and medical groups are shifting their focus when it come to the physicians they are hunting for as specialists are becoming more and more of a commodity, according to Merritt Hawkins' 25th Annual Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruiting Incentives.

The firm tracked a sample of 3,045 physician and advanced practitioner recruiting assignments conducted from April 2017 through March 2018, and the number of searches for specialists grew while the number of searchers for primary care doctors decreased.

Results show 74 percent of recruiting assignments in the last year were for specialists, up 7 percent from three years ago. Meanwhile the number of searches done for primary care physicians dropped 19 percent from last year, and compared to three years ago, the decrease is 32 percent.

"Family medicine was our number one search for the twelfth year in a row, so demand for primary care doctors is still strong," said Travis Singleton, Merritt Hawkins senior vice president. "But it is a mistake to believe that physician shortages are confined to primary care. Specialists are also in short supply."

By 2030, there could be a specialist shortage as high as 73,000, the report said.

Merritt said part of the decline can actually be attributed to the rising number of nurse practitioners and physician assistants being hired, especially at urgent care centers and retail clinics. In fact, Merritt said they conducted 61 percent more searches for these clinicians this year than last year.

Other shortages forecasted for the medical profession seemed to show themselves in the report as well, with psychiatry showing as the second most requested recruitment assignment for the third year in a row, underscoring the much reported nationwide shortage. Merritt quoted data that said  77 percent of U.S. counties reported a "severe shortage" of psychiatrists and the growing share of healthcare spending accounted for by mental health, which MH said for the first time was reported as being the largest share in 2016.

When it comes to salary, it is most definitely specialists who are garnering the highest wages. Physicians practicing invasive cardiology had the highest starting salaries at $590,000 and in second were orthopedic surgeons, who started at around $533,000. Primary care physicians did see an all-time high starting salary at $241,000.

The findings somewhat fly in the face of multiple reports of looming primary care physician shortages, forecasted to be in the tens of thousands by 2025, a situation that has long been a focal point of concern. The research shows that hospitals should also hone in on wrangling talent in specialized fields, as well as growing the ranks of their primary care physician workforce.

It also lends credence to some theories that physician hiring, which seems inevitable, will yield higher spending. With salaries climbing along with demand, hospitals will have to take a hard look at their budgets and margins to see where room can be made for more labor spending if they are too keep care delivery quality and access high, allowing them to remain competitive with other systems.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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