Which physician specialties are most targeted for corporate roll-ups?  


In the last edition of the Weekly Gist, we illustrated how non-hospital physician employment spiked during the pandemic. Diving deeper into the same report from consulting firm Avalere Health and the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute, the graphic above looks at the specialties that currently have the greatest number of physicians employed by hospitals and corporate entities (which include insurers, private equity, and non-provider umbrella organizations), and those that remain the most independent.

To date, there has been little overlap in the fields most heavily targeted for employment by hospitals and corporate entitiesHospitals have largely employed doctors critical for key service lines, like cancer and cardiology, as well as hospitalists and other doctors central to day-to-day hospital operations.

In contrast, corporate entities have made the greatest strides in specialties with lucrative outpatient procedural business, like nephrology (dialysis) and orthopedics (ambulatory surgery), as well as specialties like allergy-immunology, that can bring profitable pharmaceutical revenue.

Meanwhile, only a few specialties remain majority independent. Historically independent fields like psychiatry and oral surgery saw the number of independent practitioners fall over 25 percent during the pandemic.

While hospitals will remain the dominant physician employer in the near term, corporate employment is growing unabated, as payers and investors, unrestrained by fair market value requirements, can offer top dollar prices to practices

Lawmakers stress urgency of healthcare worker shortage


Addressing the education pipeline is one thing that legislators could focus on to improve nurse and physician shortages, medical school and health system leaders said.

As the healthcare industry continues to face pandemic-driven workforce challenges, lawmakers are exploring ways to boost the number of clinicians practicing in the U.S.

“A shortage of healthcare personnel was a problem before the pandemic and now it has gotten worse,” Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt., said during a Thursday Senate HELP committee hearing. “Health care jobs have gotten more challenging and, in some cases, more dangerous,” he said.

The country faces a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034, including 48,000 primary care physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Hospitals are currently facing shortages of registered nurses as burnout and other factors drive them to other roles. 

For example, 47-hospital system Ochsner Health in New Orleans has about 1,200 open nursing positions, Chief Academic Officer Leonardo Seoane said at Thursday’s hearing.

The workforce shortaged led Ochsner to close about 100 beds across its system during the past six months, leading to it use already-constrained emergency departments as holding bays for patients, he said.

Like other systems, labor costs have also been a concern due to a continued reliance on temporary staff to fill gaps. Ochsner’s non-agency labor costs grew just under 60% since 2019, while its costs for contract staff grew nearly 900%, he said.

“Our country is perilously short of nurses, and those we do have are often not working in the settings that could provide the most value,” Sarah Szanton, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Nursing said.

“This was true before the pandemic and has become more acute,” she said.

While many nurses left permanent roles for higher-paying contract positions during the pandemic, others have turned to jobs at outpatient clinics, coinciding with a shift toward non-hospital based care.

Registered nurse employment is nearly 5% above where it was in 2019, with nearly all that growth occurring outside of hospitals, Douglas Staiger, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, found in his research and said at the hearing.

One major concern: Driving current and projected shortages in hospitals that lawmakers can address is the educational pipeline, medical school and health system leaders said.

Educational programs for nurses and physicians face site shortages and educators who are often allured by other higher-paying jobs in the industry.

Nursing educators in Vermont earn about $65,000 a year — about half of what nurses with similar degrees working in hospitals earn, Sanders said during the hearing. He asked members to consider expanding the Nurse Corps and nurse faculty loan repayments, among other programs.

Supporting partnerships between universities and hospitals to create more training opportunities is another way Congress can help, along with addressing high costs of tuition, James Herbert, president of University of New England, said during the hearing.

“Scholarship and loan repayment programs are critical to make healthcare education more accessible for those who would otherwise find it out of reach,” Herbert said.

That includes expanding and improving Medicare-funded physician residencies, he said.

Creating a more diverse workforce that looks more like the population it serves is another important task, and one lawmakers can address by supporting historically black colleges and universities.

Federal funding could help improve classrooms and other infrastructure at HBCUs “that have been egregiously are underfunded for decades,” in addition to expanding Medicare-funded residencies for hospitals that train a large number of graduates for HBCU medical schools, said James Hildreth Sr., president and CEO at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

The American Hospital Association submitted a statement to the HELP subcommittee and said it also supports increasing the number of residency slots eligible for Medicare funds and rejecting cuts to curb long-term physician shortages.

Other AHA supported policies to address current and long-term workforce shortages include better funding for nursing schools and supporting expedited visas for foreign-trained nurses.

AHA also asked lawmakers to look into travel nurse staffing agencies, reviving requests it made last year alleging that staffing companies engaged in price gouging during the pandemic.

Last year some state lawmakers considered capping the rate hospitals can pay agencies for temporary nursing staff, though none ended up passing legislation to do so.

Physician burnout reaches record levels 


The long hours, stressful conditions, and labor shortages brought on by the pandemic have done serious harm to the physician workforce. The graphic above tracks physician burnout, a combination of emotional exhaustion, loss of agency, and depersonalization that has become the primary measure of the pandemic’s toll on workers, to reveal that physicians are demoralized like never before. 

Physician burnout levels had been decreasing since 2014, in part due to practice consolidation and the expansion of team-based care models. Burnout reached its lowest levels in 2020—perhaps explained by a pandemic-induced sense of purpose—but 2021 then saw a dramatic spike in every measure of physician dissatisfaction, as the heroic glow of the early pandemic faded, and an overtaxed and understaffed delivery system became the new norm.

In explaining how the pandemic has impacted their career decisions, surveyed physicians list unsustainable burnout and stress as their top concern, and 11 percent say they have exited the profession, either for retirement or a non-clinical job, in the past two years. Four in ten surveyed physicians report changing jobs since 2020, mainly within similar or different practice settings, citing a desire for better work-life balance as their primary motivation. (It should be caveated that these data are from a smaller survey of 534 physicians, 40 percent of whom identified as “early career”.) 

While the solutions here aren’t new, they are challenging: we must continue to implement team-based care models that provide physicians top-of-license practice and improved work-life balance, remove administrative tasks wherever possible, and ensure that we are communicating and engaging physicians—employed and independent alike—in organizational strategy and decision-making. 

Why large health insurers are buying up physicians


An enlightening piece published this week in Stat News lays out exactly how UnitedHealth Group (UHG) is using its vast network of physicians to generate new streams of profit, a playbook being followed by most other major payers. Already familiar to close observers of the post-Affordable Care Act healthcare landscape, the article highlights how UHG can use “intercompany eliminations”—payments from its UnitedHealthcare payer arm to its Optum provider and pharmacy arms—to achieve profits above the 15 to 20 percent cap placed on health insurance companies.

So far in 2022, 38 percent of UHG’s insurance revenue has flowed into its provider groups, up from 23 percent in 2017. And UHG expects next year’s intercompany eliminations to grow by 20 percent to a total of $130B, which would make up over half of its total projected revenue.

The Gist:

The profit motive behind payer-provider vertical integration is as clear as it is concerning for the state of competition in healthcare

UHG now employs or affiliates with 70K physicians—10K more than last year—seven percent of the US physician workforce, and the largest of any entity. 

Given the weak antitrust framework for regulating vertical integration, the federal government has proven unable to stop the acquisition of providers by payers. Eventually, profit growth for these vertically integrated payers will have to come from tightening provider networks, and not just acquiring more assets. That could prompt regulatory action or consumer backlash, if the government or enrollees determine that access to care is being unfairly restricted.

Until then, the march of consolidation is likely to continue.

Managing against a decline in “physician hours worked”


Last week a health system chief medical officer asked if we were hearing other systems complain of difficulties in securing call coverage for key specialties, particularly orthopedics, GI and urology. We agreed: with proceduralists building larger outpatient businesses, often funded by investors, there is less incentive for groups to support hospital call. To fill the gaps, hospitals are having to negotiate lucrative deals for coverage, and the market feels like the “deal for every doc” years in the early 2000s, when specialists had leverage to negotiate bespoke partnership contracts. In this leader’s case, he ended up brokering a deal with gastroenterologists to serve in a hospital-based role, providing in-house coverage for consults. “These docs are able to make $600K a year, working about 30 hours per week. It’s insane,” he lamented. 
But beyond the cost of talent, he was concerned about the larger ramifications of these kind of roles on physician supply. “I’ve been thinking about a metric along the lines of ‘lifetime physician hours worked’, and how that has changed over time,” he shared. He explained that physicians of his generation expected to work 60- to 80- hour weeks for most of their careers. Most younger doctors want to work much less, say 40 or 50 hours.

Over a forty-year career, he calculated, the healthcare system could get 36,800, or roughly a third fewer, “lifetime work-hours” from a doctor starting today. And most early-career doctors also plan to retire younger. “Now don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “We probably worked too hard, and these younger guys are onto something.” But he was concerned about the ramifications for physician supply, and posited we are poised for a deep shortage of clinical talent.

Creating the future physician workforce will require not only training more doctors, but also finding ways to make their work hours more efficient, with greater use of technology and other caregivers, who must also be trained in greater numbers. It takes at least four years to train a nurse, and nearly a decade before a student entering medical school today becomes a practicing physician—we can’t afford such a long lag time before more physician capacity comes online.

Physician residents and fellows unionize at two major California health systems

Seeking stronger workplace protections, physician residents and fellows at both Stanford Health Care and the University of Southern California’s (USC) Keck School of Medicine have voted to join the Committee of Interns and Residents, a chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Despite being frontline healthcare workers, most Stanford residents were excluded from the first round of the health system’s COVID vaccine rollout in December 2020. The system ultimately revised its plan to include residents, but the delay damaged Stanford’s relationship with residents, adding momentum to the unionization movement. Meanwhile, Keck’s residents unanimously voted in favor of joining the union, aiming for higher compensation and greater workplace representation.

The Gist: While nurses and other healthcare workers in California, as in many other parts of the country, have been increasingly banding together for higher pay and better working conditions, physician residents and fellows contemplating unionization is a newer trend. 

Physicians-in-training have historically accepted long work hours and low pay as a rite of passage, and have shied away from organizing. But pandemic working conditions, the growing trend of physician employment, and generational shifts in the physician workforce have changed the profession in a multitude of ways. 

Health systems and training programs must actively engage in understanding and supporting the needs of younger doctors, who will soon comprise a majority of the physician workforce.

New campaign to thank health care workers

The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association teamed up to release a new “Forever Grateful” TV and digital ad campaign on Monday to thank health care workers.

Why it matters: The campaign comes in the face of record levels of reported health care worker burnout tied, in part, to the prolonged emergency response to COVID-19.

  • The AHA also released a new video thanking health care professionals working in America’s hospitals and health systems for their work.

A mounting specialist access crisis


Types of Doctors: Some Common Physician Specialties

We’ve been hearing a growing number of stories from patients about difficulties scheduling appointments for specialist consults.

A friend’s 8-year-old son experienced a new-onset seizure and was told that the earliest she could schedule a new patient appointment with a pediatric neurologist at the local children’s hospital was the end of November. Concerned about a five-month wait time after the scary episode, she asked what she should do in the meantime: “They told me if I want him to be seen sooner, bring him to the ED at the hospital if it happens again.”

A colleague shared his frustration after his PCP advised him to see a gastroenterologist. Calling six practices on the recommended referral list, the earliest appointment he could find was nine weeks out; the scheduler at one practice noted that with everyone now scheduling colonoscopies and other procedures postponed during the pandemic, they are busier than they’ve been in years. Recent conversations with medical group leaders confirm a specialist access crunch. 

Patients who delayed care last year are reemerging, and ones who were seen by telemedicine now want to come in person. “We are booked solid in almost every specialty, with wait times double what they were before COVID,” one medical group president shared. The spike in demand is compounded by staffing challenges: “I pray every day that another one of our nurses doesn’t quit, because it will take us months to replace them.”

Doctors and hospitals are now seeing a rise in acuity—cancers diagnosed at a more advanced stage, chronic disease patients presenting with more severe complications—due to care delayed by the pandemic. If patients can’t schedule needed appointments and procedures, this spike in severity could be prolonged, or even made worse. 

For medical groups who can find ways to open additional access, it’s also an opportunity to capture new business and engender greater patient loyalty.

Op-Ed: As a doctor, I use telemedicine. With the coronavirus threat, it could revolutionize healthcare


Image result for Op-Ed: As a doctor, I use telemedicine. With the coronavirus threat, it could revolutionize healthcare

As a physician, waiting for the worst of coronavirus to hit, I see a lot to fear. It seems increasingly likely that this will be one of the most significant pandemics in modern human history, and that it will change our approach to healthcare going forward. But not all of its legacy will be negative. Here’s one thing I hope will come out of the crisis: an increased reliance on telemedicine, something that should have happened long ago.

A few months ago, when I was between jobs, I took a part-time job in a rural hospital serving a county of more than 150,000 people. On the verge of bankruptcy, the hospital was unable to attract many specialists to join its ranks, and in desperation, had turned to telemedicine to cover many services. So, for example, if a patient was rushed to the emergency room after a stroke, there was unlikely to be a neurologist in the room. Instead, a neurologist would assess the patient on a mobile screen from far away, with local nursing staff and doctors aiding him or her.

I had been skeptical of telemedicine going in. Physical exams are the bedrock of how doctors and nurses assess patients. We look patients and their loved ones in the eye, palpate sore spots with our fingers and offer comfort with a hand on a shoulder. Physical contact, I’d always thought, was at the heart of how doctors and patients communicate.

It was with this skepticism that I found myself next to a young man who been brought to the emergency room after attempting to take his own life. Again. This time, instead of seeing a psychiatrist in person, he saw one on a screen with wheels. The psychiatrist was in some distant location, but she had been in touch with the local doctors and had access to his medical records. Despite her physical remoteness, she connected with him, and he opened up. She knew of all the local resources to refer him to, and at the end of her conversation, she had developed a real rapport with him. After the visit ended and the nurse wheeled the monitor out of the room, I asked the young man what he thought, and to my surprise, he told me he was more comfortable with this than an in-person visit. He wasn’t the only one — many patients say they prefer a virtual doc to one sitting across from them.

Over the past few decades, medical care has been transformed by technology. Whenever a new drug becomes available, or a medical procedure is approved by the FDA, the medical community is quick to deploy it. Yet, when it comes to how we see patients, our current practices haven’t changed much since the time of Hippocrates. If a patient is sick they either have to come see us in clinic, urgent care, the emergency room or the hospital. Despite the internet transforming every aspect of our lives, from how we find love to how we order groceries, the way we deliver medical care has stagnated.

In the United States, not only are doctors often inaccessible for those living in rural areas, hospitals everywhere have huge economic challenges. One healthcare executive jokingly told me his hospital made more money from its parking lots than its clinics.

The response to COVID-19 might help change that.

One of the main reasons China has been able to slow coronavirus transmission has been because of a dramatic increase in virtual visits. In fact, China has moved half of all medical care online, allowing patients to consult with their doctors and get prescriptions from the comfort of their homes. Hospitals have been notorious petri dishes for deadly bugs since long before COVID-19, and this pandemic has brought that risk into crystal-clear focus. On Tuesday, Medicare announced that it will greatly expand coverage for telemedicine visits, previously sharply restricted. And at a White House briefing, the government announced it was urging states to similarly expand Medicaid coverage to include telemedicine visits by Skype, Facetime or other platforms. Some insurers have also said they will cover telehealth visits at parity with in-person visits.

These measures are commendable, but policies need to be put in place to ensure that the expansion of telemedicine is not temporary. Of course, in-person visits will still be necessary in many cases. But supporting telemedicine on a par with such visits has the potential to protect patients and healthcare personnel and allow for much more efficiency in the system. That said, physicians and nurses will need high-quality training to provide compassionate and thorough care to a patient from across a computer screen. Technology that allows patients to be “examined” remotely needs to be better studied and made more accessible. And since the backbone of telemedicine is reliable high-speed internet, Congress should consider Elizabeth Warren’s plan to bring broadband internet to the remotest parts of this country, to ensure broad access to these services.

This week my team converted most of our clinic visits from face to face to virtual visits. Some were over the phone, others were over video, often with a family member present as well. While there were some patients that still needed to be seen in person, we were able to minimize the risk of viral transmission not only for patients, but also for valuable members of our clinical team. Even before this crisis, as part of my job at the Veterans Affairs Health System in Boston, I often consulted with patients I had never seen as part of an “E Consult” system. While I was initially nervous when I first started doing this, it allowed me to expand my footprint far beyond what I could manage if I were seeing every patient in person.

At some point, I fervently hope the coronavirus will be a thing of the past. But I hope it leaves behind a legacy. I hope it changes how well we wash our hands, how well we fund public health and how well we protect the healthcare workers caring for our sickest patients. And, most of all, I hope it pushes us to embrace telemedicine.





Ochsner to pay tuition for future physicians, nurses who pledge to 5 years with system


Image result for Ochsner Health System

New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System created a $10 million tuition fund to grow its own workforce amid current labor market challenges, according to The Advocate, a Louisiana news outlet.

The system will begin by paying tuition for a cohort of 30 primary care physicians and psychiatrists. The physicians must commit to working in Louisiana with the health system for at least five years to receive the funding.

Ochsner has plans to offer similar scholarship opportunities for employees who want to become licensed practical nurses or registered nurses. It plans to ultimately cover tuition for about 1,000 employees, according to the report.

Read the full story here.