Emergency departments (EDs) were struck particularly hard during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-COVID visits declined as patients were fearful of exposure to the virus and other medical emergencies, such as car accidents, were down as people sheltered in place. Volume matters more in emergency medicine (EM) than in other medical specialties, relying heavily on numbers to generate revenue.
This volatility has turned the supply and demand of EM physicians on its head over the past year, changing a historically tight recruitment market into a buyer’s market. However, this appears to be a short-term trend. Factors such as, an ongoing shortage of EM physicians in rural areas, COVID-19 vaccines and growing closer to herd immunity, leveling out of patient confidence in visiting the ED, and others, point to a return to ED physician shortages in the near future.
As healthcare organizations continue to manage the future ebb and flow of patient visits and look to effectively build back ED resources, many are incorporating locum tenens to gain more flexibility in meeting ever-changing patient demand and to gain more control over costs as they rebuild.
Supply & Demand: The COVID-19 Factor.
Due to the nature of how emergency medicine hiring works and how significantly ED volumes have dropped overall despite often large numbers of COVID-19 patients, many EDs have been forced to reduce staff to trim costs.
A survey from the American College of Emergency Physicians found that 20% of EDs laid off doctors in 2020, nearly one-third furloughed them and more than half cut hours or wages. In fact, 83% reduced physicians’ hours during the pandemic.
The supply/demand mix is the result of a domino effect – fewer visits to the ER resulted in less revenue for the ER and cash-strapped employers stopped recruiting new doctors. In short, fewer healthcare organizations could afford new EM doctors during a crisis in which it would seem they should be in high demand.
Supply Surplus an Urban Problem, Not the Same in Rural Areas.
Rural areas have consistently struggled to recruit EM physicians to their healthcare facilities, and this went largely unchanged during the pandemic. And the rural emergency physician shortage is expected to worsen in the coming years, according to a new report.
Of the 48,835 clinically active emergency physicians in the U.S. 92% practice in urban areas with just 8% practicing in rural communities in 2020, down from 10% in 2008. The analysis also shows that the rural emergency physician workforce is aging. While the median age for an urban emergency physician is 50 years old, the median age in large rural communities is 58 years old and 62 years old in smaller rural communities.
Effectively Navigating the Peaks and Valleys of ED Visits.
The underlying dynamics of ED physician supply and demand today are short-term. It is only a matter of time before the market sees a return to shortages and the status quo. However, the road back to pre-COVID patient demand and revenue generation is going to be a bumpy one.
As patient visits to the ED ebbs and peaks as the country continues to emerge from crisis-level, a contingent labor, flexible staffing model can help healthcare leaders manage these fluctuations more cost-effectively. By pivoting away from a fixed number of full-time physicians to a greater use of locums physicians can lead to greater cost containment as volumes are harder to predict.
More Insight into Talent Markey Dynamics.
As a trusted staffing partner to leading healthcare organizations across the U.S., Cross Country Locums continually monitors and analyzes key market dynamics of the emergency physician sector. To learn more about current labor trends for emergency physicians, download our latest Market Snapshot.