The Most In-Demand Doctors After COVID-19

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  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

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    While COVID-19 has flipped the physician job market, it will also increase demand for certain specialists, a recent Merritt Hawkins report says. The physician staffing firm’s findings indicate that the pandemic response will require more family physicians, psychiatrists, and infectious disease experts. Furthermore, the report projects that COVID-19 will increase the demand for NPs and PAs.

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    As part of its annual review of physician recruitment and benefits packages, Merritt Hawkins reviewed more than 3,000 physician-recruiter and employer-recruiter interactions. The review has some limitations. For example, the report covers physician-recruiter and employer-recruiter interactions between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, touching on only the beginning of the pandemic. That makes one think that if anything, their projections may be conservative, since the pandemic has continued to present.

    Merritt Hawkins says that the 5 most in-demand healthcare workers are:
    1. Family Medicine (includes FP/OB)
    2. Nurse Practitioner
    3. Psychiatry
    4. Radiology
    5. Internal Medicine
    This year’s report indicates that family physician was the most-requested specialty for the 14th consecutive year, which highlights the demand for primary care. They add that the shift to telehealth — driven by COVID-19 — will likely affect compensation structures for primary care physicians.

    “Because of their continued key role as care coordinators, advocates of prevention,

    and providers of care continuity, primary physicians will play a foundational role in the healthcare system post-COVID-19 and the market for their services will, in the long-term, be robust,” the report reads.

    In the months and years ahead, primary care providers will be essential care coordinators, prevention advocates, and sources of testing and vaccination.

    Increased demand for specialists

    Merritt Hawkins reports that 78% of its search engagements were for specialists. Compare that to 67% 5 years ago. Driving the demand are some trends that predate COVID-19, including an aging population needing care for organs, the skeletal system, and mental health.

    Nevertheless, the pandemic is adding to the demand for specialists, the report says.

    “Demand for physicians on the front lines of virus care, including emergency medicine physicians, pulmonologists/critical care physicians, and infectious disease specialists is projected to increase as a result of COVID-19,” the report reads.

    Merritt Hawkins anticipates that the healthcare system will also need more hospitalists, infectious disease specialists, emergency medicine physicians, and pulmonary/critical care specialists, noting that they “will be needed to both maintain population health should cases of COVID-19 persist and prepare for the next pandemic or public health emergency.”

    Infectious disease specialists

    There was perhaps a quaint time when some thought medical advances had decreased the demand for ID specialists. But the widespread, deadly nature of COVID-19 renders that thought moot. Even prior to coronavirus, we saw outbreaks of HIV and ebola, as well as increasing cases of Hepatitis C and tuberculosis. We also have more immunocompromised patients, including cancer and transplant patients, who are susceptible to infectious disease.

    Unfortunately, ID specialists were scarce prior to the pandemic, National Resident Matching Program data indicate. In 2016, just 37.6% of ID residencies in the US were filled by graduates of US MD programs. In 2020, the figure stood at 39.4%.

    “These stark supply and demand trends suggest that the looming shortage of ID specialists should be addressed by policy makers before the next pandemic strikes,” the Merritt Hawkins report reads.

    Mental health burden

    The US faced a worsening mental health outlook prior to the pandemic, with life expectancies declining for the first time in centuries, due to deaths of despair, such as suicide and overdose. For 5 years, psychiatry has held the #2 spot on Merritt Hawkins’ list of in-demand specialties. COVID-19 likely will keep it there. The pandemic has injected fear and anxiety into untold numbers of Americans, and it’s likely that we won’t have a complete understanding of the mental health consequences for decades.

    Merritt Hawkins says their data indicate a psychiatrist shortage that has persisted for decades. COVID-19 likely will make it worse. An April Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll showed that the pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of 45% of American adults. For comparison, KFF says 32.5% of adults said they felt worried, nervous, or anxious on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis in 2018. There has been an increased need for meds, too. According to an Express Scripts report, between February 16 and March 15, 2020, prescriptions for antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia meds went up by 21%. More than 78% of these prescriptions were new.

    NPs and PAs

    Perhaps it’s not surprising that with the increased demand for family medicine and other primary care comes an increased demand for NPs and PAs. However, this is the first time NPs have secured the #2 spot on Merritt Hawkins’ rankings, representing a 54% year-over-year increase. The company says COVID-19 likely will drive the demand up further.

    Prior to the pandemic, patients were eschewing office-based primary care. A Health Care Cost Institute report shows that primary care office visits declined by 18% from 2012-2016 among adults under the age of 65. During the same period, NP and PA office visits increased by 129%, the report says.

    “Convenient care venues such as urgent care centers and retail clinics, commonly staffed by NPs and PAs, are becoming key entry points into the health system,” the Merritt Hawkins report reads. “A growing number of younger people are using these sites (as well as telemedicine) as their main source of primary care, eroding market share for traditional, office-based primary care physicians.”

    TL;DR
    • The top 5, according to the Merritt Hawkins report: Family Medicine (includes FP/OB), Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatry, Radiology, Internal Medicine
    • Over the last year, 78% of Merritt Hawkins physician search engagements were for specialists.
    • There was an infectious disease specialist shortage prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 highlights the need for more ID specialists.
    • There weren’t enough psychiatrists to meet mental health demands before the pandemic. As the scope of the mental health damage from the pandemic emerges, we’ll likely need more psychiatrists to address it.
    • NPs and PAs are increasingly taking on roles once filled by primary care providers, and for the first time claimed the #2 spot on Merritt Hawkins’ list.
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