Physician job search strategy shifts as Internet booms, economy busts

Physician recruiters say they're more likely to go online to find job candidates than to use search firms.

By — Posted Oct. 5, 2009

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When orthopedic surgeon John Kemp, MD, looked for a job fresh out of residency 22 years ago, he used a lot of paper and stamps mailing resumes to practices in areas of the country where he wanted to work, not knowing if there was even a job available.

A year ago, when Dr. Kemp decided it was time to leave private practice in Littleton, Colo., he turned to listings on the Internet -- no paper, no stamps, no guessing if someone had an opening. On Aug. 1, he started as director of sports medicine at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center in Marshall, Minn.

The Internet "gives you a lot more selection and, therefore, a lot more options," Dr. Kemp said.

In-house recruiters handling doctor hiring are feeling the same way.

A recent survey of 166 recruiters at hospitals and physician groups found that most rely heavily on Internet job postings, as well as word-of-mouth, to locate physicians for open positions. They were using physician search firms less than other tools, citing both the cost and complaints that the firms did not gather up enough qualified candidates.

The survey of members of the Assn. of Staff Physician Recruiters,released Sept. 1, was conducted by The Medicus Firm -- a physician search firm with offices in Dallas and the Atlanta area. Among other findings: recruiters not only wished firms would "charge less," but some hoped "they would go away and never come back."

"I don't think it is necessarily a huge surprise that [recruiters] have some negative feelings" toward search firms, said Jim Stone, managing partner of Medicus. He is also a member of the board of directors of the National Assn. of Physician Recruiters. Stone said that even despite recession-related cutbacks, many hospitals and large groups in recent years have invested in developing in-house recruiting capabilities.

According to the Medicus study, the percentage of in-house recruiters who regularly used external firms dropped from 55.1% in 2008 to 49% this year. And search firms nationwide are noticing the drop. "I do see that the volume of searches is down, and institutions are doing more recruiting directly as opposed to working with a firm," said Brian McCartie, vice president of business development for Cejka Search, a health care executive and physician search firm based in St. Louis.

Recognizing changes in the market, search firms are revising their fee models and promoting more services -- including use of Internet job boards -- to attract clients. Stone said that given the difficulty of filling physician positions, search firms can play a part even if that role is being just one of multiple means employed to find doctors.

In-house recruiters surveyed pointed most often to the Internet as the most effective way to find physicians, with 74 agreeing on the online approach, an increase from the 68 who said this in 2008. Only 15 recruiters said working with a search firm was the most effective technique, a decrease from the 25 who said that in 2008. Recruiters most often said they work with search firms "very infrequently."

"The Internet has become such a huge player in recruitment, not just for doctors but for everybody, as more and more people become technically savvy," said Scott Manning, director of human resources and provider recruiting at MedPro, a 260-physician multispecialty practice based in Phoenix.

If job-hunting physicians "work only with search firms, they are reducing their exposure to a lot of places that don't use them," said Marci Jackson, director of physician and provider recruitment for Southwest Medical Associates, a UnitedHealth Group-owned multispecialty practice in Las Vegas. Jackson works with search firms when she has a position that is difficult to fill or when she has multiple openings. Recently her practice used search firms to help find a pulmonary critical care physician and staff a new anesthesiology department.

Recruiters often are using their own hospital or practice Web site or other online job boards -- avoiding the thousands of dollars in fees charged by search firms. In-house recruiters also are taking advantage of social media. Twitter, for example, has search tags, including "#jobs" and "#physician," that point to job openings.

Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., launched a Facebook page in January with videos of physicians talking about working there and living in the area.

Setting up the Facebook page "was actually a request from one of our physicians who thought it would be a great way to connect with younger physicians," said Cindy Bagwell, associate vice president for Geisinger's professional staffing department. "It is hard to say if [the page] in and of itself caused a physician to pick up the phone and call us. We're just trying to be in a lot of different venues to get our message out there. I still think it remains to be seen if it will generate some interest."

Search firms said they are taking steps to adjust to shifts in the industry. Companies are experimenting with various fee models, such as charging institutions monthly flat rates or working with others associated with the process to develop various combinations of placement fees.

Job search firms also are bumping up the services they believe add value and reduce the time it takes to recruit a physician. For instance, many search firms visit with clients that are hiring as well as with candidates, to assess suitability before putting a name forward.

"We spend a lot of time with the candidate to make sure that the opportunity matches what a physician actually needs," said Phil Miller, spokesman for physician placement firm Merritt Hawkins & Associates, headquartered in Irving, Texas.

Merritt Hawkins is one of many search firms that posts jobs it's handling onto Internet boards.

In fact, that's how Dr. Kemp found Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.

"I didn't single out Merritt Hawkins," Dr. Kemp said. "Like most physicians, I started off with an Internet search. Once I started clicking on jobs, that led to working with a search firm."

The online nexus of the doctor, the hospital and the search firm worked out for all involved. Avera found its candidate. Dr. Kemp got the job. And Merritt Hawkins got paid for finding a physician.

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What's the best way to recruit?

A survey of the Assn. of Staff Physician Recruiters asked recruiters to note the most effective ways of filling physician job openings. Respondents overwhelmingly picked online listings.

Posting on Internet job boards51%
Networking with current physicians on staff15%
Contacting training programs, residents12%
Using career fairs, mail, cold calls, journal ads12%
Working with physician recruiting firms10%

Source: 2009 Corporate Contributor ASPR Member Survey, The Medicus Firm, Sept. 1

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How often search firms are used

A survey of staff physician recruiters found most bypass external search firms.

20% use search firms regularly.

29% use search firms from time to time.

42% use search firms infrequently.

9% never work with search firms, by choice or company policy.

Source: 2009 Corporate Contributor ASPR Member Survey, The Medicus Firm, Sept. 1

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