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The Exodus of American Healthcare Workers, and What Comes Next

More and more American healthcare workers are transitioning to private practice and telehealth.

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It goes without saying that the current global health crisis has had an astronomic impact on American healthcare workers. The internet has been inundated with articles and personal testimonies discussing burnout and the massive amount of stress healthcare workers have been under – but the issues these workers are facing aren't altogether new. In a 2021 study of physicians, 79% of respondents reported that their "burnout" had begun even before the crisis began.

Whether from low wages, long hours, lack of salaried advancement opportunity, or a pre-existing shortage of workers putting strain on individuals – those stressors have now become amplified, contributing further to a vicious cycle. A recent survey showed that 18% of healthcare workers have quit their jobs since mid-February 2021, with an additional 12% laid off in that same time. Of those healthcare workers who stayed, 19% reported that they had considered leaving the healthcare profession altogether, and 12% considered leaving for another role in the industry.

This vicious cycle the healthcare industry faces is one that propagates into more individuals burnt out and leaving, feeding back into the worker shortage that overworks those who remain. Further, as wages stagnate, those healthcare workers who stayed behind have good reason to seek new opportunities.

The question is: what are those new opportunities, and can any of the changes brought on by the global health crisis become a net positive for physicians who waded through it?

Related: 4 Inspiring Ways Professional Communities Are Coping With Crisis

Physicians, specialists and more are looking for new avenues

The healthcare industry and its workers are nothing if not resilient. As a testament to their resiliency, a poll conducted in early September 2021 showed that 57% of healthcare workers still held an optimistic view about the future of the industry. When healthcare workers were asked to offer advice to new medical professionals, 48% were generally positive about the career, while 9% were neutral.

These numbers may be on the borderline of glass half-full, but any hesitation often stems from an understanding that this is a period of great transition for the industry – an accelerated change of how things have been done for decades, and evolving for this new landscape of ever-present technology, virtual learning and rising gig economies.

Dr. Hudson is a member of the industry who sees the change coming, and is setting herself up in a good place to adapt. She has experience working for the large health system, but is transitioning her practice in the direction of telehealth. According to literature by Hilty et al. in 2013, and by Yellowlees et al. in 2015, telepsychiatry is as effective as in-person psychiatric consultations for diagnostic assessment and may be better than in-person treatment in some groups of patients with conditions such as agoraphobia. Dr. Hudson plans to further invest her time and efforts in telemedicine in the near future and begin her own private practice.

The transition Dr. Hudson is making outlines the options of insurance-backed telehealth and the incentivization of opening a private practice that has been growing for physicians and specialists moving forward.

Related: What Is Next for Telehealth?

Private practice and patient care

Proponents of private practice argue that it offers a physician more control and flexibility in dealing with patients, and that is among the many factors contributing to it undergoing an accelerated shift. While private practices have been slowly in decline for years, a May 2021 analysis showed that the majority of patient care physicians worked outside of physician-owned medical practices, something that had not been documented since the organization started tracking back in 2012.

Doctors have attributed this change to the stress of managing a practice while working as a physician full-time, as well as the increasing complexity of regulations and the insurance industry. To add to that, the benefits of private practice give direct control back to the physician, as they are free to prioritize in whatever manner they see fit, and are ultimately able to spend more time with patients. Additionally, private clinics can often offer lower rates for their services, though of course it can still be argued that a larger health system benefits from a wider range of easily accessible services. Generally, the market for maintaining a private practice varies widely depending on the managing physician's specialization.

However, private practice isn't the only end goal for many physicians and specialists like Dr. Hudson. Another option that has turned out somewhat lucrative as a career change or adaptation within the medical field is telehealth – also known as telemedicine.

Telehealth and virtual check-ups

Telehealth allows a doctor to call you on the phone or interact with you over a webcam and perform some of the basic functions of a regular check-up. While this medium of communication is limited for things such as a physical or detailed examination, it is a convenient and easy way to perform simple check-ups and diagnoses. It is particularly beneficial for those without easy access to medical facilities, those with ailments who would prefer to avoid hospitals.

A July report by McKinsey showed that telehealth is yet another example of an existing healthcare trend that has rapidly accelerated in popularity, stabilizing at about thirty-eight times higher this year than before the crisis, with use levels ranging upwards of 17% percent across all medical specialties. Another report showed that in 2021, 26% of healthcare organizations had a quarter or more of their patients using telehealth – a massive increase from the 7% reported in 2019.

Not only does telehealth provide an excellent opportunity for doctors to supplement their existing work, and engage entirely with a new field, but insurance companies have already been brought on board offering cost-effective plans with low deductibles for telehealth services that benefit both the physicians offering expertise and the patients receiving medical care.

What comes next for the healthcare industry

As the crisis wanes, specialists like Dr. Hudson help to outline how the future of the healthcare industry will continue to evolve. Though still in the early stages of the next big transition, insurance companies backing patient care telehealth function as a staple of what the industry can look like moving forward.

This opportunity is likely to attract a wide range of entrepreneurial physicians seeking new career paths that allow greater personal autonomy and augment their private practice, all while avoiding the burnout of work in larger hospitals. If current trends in the medical field continue, then telehealth and the individualized care of private practice is likely to become a pervasive part of our relationship with healthcare providers. Though it is difficult to predict how exactly both will evolve, it is likely that technological innovations will only see the 1:1 patient-care capabilities enhanced and refined.

Related: What Entrepreneurs Need to Know About the Post-Pandemic Telehealth Industry

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