Are part-time physicians worsening staff shortages? 4 leaders weigh in

More physicians are turning to part-time work as a way to combat burnout, while hospitals are grappling with providing patient care in the shifting work environment.

The concentration of part-time physicians has fluctuated throughout the last two decades. In 2005, only 13 percent of physicians were working 20 to 29 hours per week, compared with 2011, when part-time physicians made up 21 percent of the physician workforce, Medscape reported May 9.

Meanwhile, more physicians have been leaving the profession following the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers recently found 43 percent of physicians said they would not choose to become a physician again, and, 62.8 percent manifested at least one trait of burnout in 2021 — compared to 38.2 percent in 2020.

Here, four leaders weigh in on whether part-time physicians contribute to staff shortages or whether they could be a solution.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Doug Bruce, MD. Chief Clinical Integration Officer at MetroHealth (Cleveland): I'm going to say part-time physicians both contribute to and are a solution for the staff shortage. It can be hard, especially in safety net systems, to find people who want to work in a complex care environment that may not be compensated as much as other institutions in town. It's difficult to find the three full-time people I may need to staff a center, and if their response to that is, "okay, well, I'll do it, but I'm not going to work full time," it's even more challenging to find six of those people. That's how part-time perpetuates part of the physician shortage.

But that being said, every system has to respond to the market. When providers say "I want flexibility," systems need to respond. It's a give and take trying to find the balance, but the hospitals and the clinics that are able to be maximally flexible, to meet that provider where they are, instead of arbitrarily demanding "give me everything or you don't have anything," will win the game here. They'll be able to engage people in the long term. Healthcare is a very competitive environment. Staff can go work at one institution for a year and then work somewhere else. We really need people who are willing to stay for a long time, and if staying means working under a full-time 1.0, then the smarter move is for me to let a physician work at .8 and keep them for five years.

Robert Hart, MD. Chief Physician Executive at Ochsner Health (New Orleans): In the short-term, part-time physicians can be a problem because of immediate needs. When someone cuts back hours, you have a little void to fill and patients that still need care. This is where I think technology can help fill the gap. As technology continues to advance and AI takes some of the mundane tasks, there will be more time for physicians to do patient care that they would not otherwise be able to do. 

Long term, understanding what a physician is trying to accomplish by working part-time and coupling that with organizational needs can strike the right balance. If you understand the physician's needs, then you're able to find the best option. For example, you may have a physician who is nearing retirement, but who is willing to stay on longer if they can work part time. By giving them that option, you are able to keep someone with an incredible amount of experience, skill and knowledge working later into life than they otherwise would have. We can find that sweet spot for physicians to find joy in medicine, resolve some of their burnout and find the fulfillment they're looking for both at home and work. You can give that person a longer career and higher fulfillment than they would have had by continuing to work hard until they burned out. I think there's a lot of opportunity here, and I think we're going to see those types of situations play out more. 

Melissa Love. Vice President of Professional Staff Services at Ochsner Health (New Orleans): There's kind of a silent piece to this: some people are approaching retirement and don't want to work full time anymore; some want work-life balance; but really it's about burnout. Our physicians did not go into medicine to stare at a computer and type all day long. They went into medicine to communicate with their patients face-to-face and help resolve a problem for them. In healthcare, a lot of things have been placed on physicians that are not what they went into medicine for. As technology like AI advances, it can remove some of those pain points and annoyances for physicians. I think we'll see a change in the conversation because the decision to reduce hours is often around burnout — they're tired. They're making notes until 12 o'clock at night. They're trying to respond to messages. There are all these pieces that are not about direct patient care that are impacting our physicians and their decision to be full time. I think we will start to see a shift in that desire as we improve their work life period.

Meera Udayakumar, MD. Chief Medical Officer at UNC Health Rex (Raleigh): We need to do what we can as healthcare organizations to accommodate part-time work and that includes being more flexible with scheduling. There might be solutions in what I'll call job sharing — basically pairing up our part-time physicians, so we end up with a full-time clinical schedule. I think it's also important that part-time physicians are still connected to the organization and to their clinical team, even though they're spending fewer hours in that job environment. It's also critical to maintain continuity of care for patients and clinical competence. Fortunately, here at UNC Rex, we have a very well established physician community and we know our full time and our part-time teammates very well. It's important to recognize what physicians are looking for and what will keep them as part of our workforce for as long as possible. We all benefit from keeping a well-trained physician in practice for as long as possible and for as long as it's a fulfilling job for that individual. Whatever we can do to increase that likelihood, we need to do.

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