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Recruitment Revs as Auto Industry Stalls

Marianne Aiello, May 6, 2009

The normally bumpy road that is physician recruitment and retention can become pothole-riddled when the local economy turns sour. Now imagine your hospital is about 80 miles from Detroit. As the economy—and the auto industry—struggles, the healthcare environment is rapidly changing for Michigan hospitals, health systems, and physicians. However, Jackson's Allegiance Health has continued to employ successful physician recruitment, relations, and retention tactics even as the numbers of unemployed and, subsequently, the uninsured continue to climb.

"I've noticed the doctors are much more sensitive to their income," says Jerry Grannan, executive director of physician integration at Allegiance. "In our employed models, we try to emphasize the security aspects of it, like the automatic savings for retirement that we have. But we haven't seen big problems yet in docs reacting to the economy besides that."

But new recruits have different concerns than employed physicians. To counter primary care physicians' misperception that the growing number of uninsured means less business, Michael Houttekier, physician recruiter at Allegiance, stresses to potential primary care physician recruits that the area has an access-to-care problem and needs more doctors.

"Normally, when you present it like that to physicians, they see the longevity of themselves being a practitioner here, which ultimately overshadows the particular economic situation that we're currently in," Houttekier says.

Recruiting to retain
Allegiance's success boils down to a level-headed approach to recruitment and retention. Houttekier once hired a doctor from California who stayed only one year before returning home. He never made that mistake again. Now, he makes sure each recruit has a Michigan tie.

"You try to keep your strategies in line to recruit to retain, not recruit to just recruit," Houttekier says. "When you do that, you don't just get that warm body fill."

If new physicians have a preexisting Michigan connection, not only will they better integrate into the community, but they'll have a more accurate idea of what to expect.

"They come to the state knowing what they're getting into," Grannan says. "You can't come to Michigan and say, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't realize the economy was struggling.' They're coming for other reasons—proximity to family and all that. They know what they're getting into. And if they went into it strictly for economic reasons, they wouldn't come to the state, period."

Emphasizing new media
When filling a new position, Houttekier, who manages all physician advertising campaigns, doesn't believe in the blanket approach to marketing. He places ads in niche publications and Web sites, depending on the specialty he's hiring for, and has been dabbling in Facebook. He says any successful recruitment campaign must take advantage of new media, because younger and older doctors alike are computer savvy.

"Doing it electronically has spun off into Facebook. I think it will end up spinning off into MySpace to recruit physicians from there," Houttekier says. "I think it's the biggest media that we have at our fingertips, and it makes it relatively easy versus sending out a postcard to all the people." Houttekier uses postcards and other print materials (see the postcard featured at right and on p. 4) when appropriate, but tries to supplement them with online efforts. For example, an online streaming video of the health system's main facility is in the works.

"When we send out an e-mail blast or any type of literature in print, they can go on and log into the streaming video so they can actually see an advertising campaign for our facility," Houttekier says. "We have a brand-new heart center, a brand-new ED—things like that tend to increase someone's interest to say, 'Wow, this is a system on the move, and this is a place I'd really be interested to look at.' It kind of broadens your opportunities by doing something like that, plus it saves paper."

Keeping tabs on recruits
Once a new physician is hired, the responsibility moves from Houttekier to the physician liaison. Allegiance implemented an intensive follow-up process for new hires after some, such as the aforementioned California physician, left prematurely. A few years ago, the recruiter and liaison positions merged, but soon separated again once it proved to be too much work for one person.

"Our liaison goes out and keeps tabs on our new recruits for three years … to identify issues or concerns in real time—more than figuring out that there is a problem when they announce their resignation," Grannan says.

The liaison can take physician concerns directly to the CEO, if needed. Some of the most common issues are integration of physicians' spouses and children into the community and physicians' relationships with other doctors and staff members.

By recruiting using highly targeted ads, stressing the positives over the negatives, implementing selective hiring, and keeping track of new hires, the three-person Allegiance recruiting and retention team has created a system that remains strong even in today's uncertain economic environment. In the past four years, it has successfully recruited 54 physicians. Only six have left.

"The economy will end up turning around, so you have to look at the long-term in how you sell an opportunity," Houttekier says. "Try to focus on the future."


Marianne Aiello is an editor with HealthLeaders Media. She may be reached at maiello@healthleadersmedia.com.

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