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Analysis

How to Prepare for Physician Retirements

By Christopher Cheney  
   November 04, 2019

There are several considerations for both physicians and administrators, including notice periods and how to initiate retirement discussions.

Healthcare organizations should create a positive culture and effective processes for physician retirements, according to a recent survey report published by Alpharetta, Georgia-based Jackson Physician Search.

Physician retirements pose multiple challenges, the survey report says: by next year, about one-third of physicians will be over 65 and nearing retirement; and open positions impact patient satisfaction, staff morale, and revenue. For example, a hospital can lose about $150,000 in revenue per month when a specialist retires and is not replaced.

Physicians and healthcare organization administrators should work cooperatively to manage retirement transitions, the survey report says. "Differences remain on length of notice and whose responsibility it is to bring up retirement, but when handled respectfully and conducted in a non-discriminatory way, both parties can find the ideal way to transition the retirement with proper planning and processes."

The survey report, which features data collected from more than 550 physicians and 100 administrators, has several key findings:

  • For physicians, lifestyle was identified as the most important factor in retirement decisions, with lifestyle cited by 44% of physicians surveyed. Financial stability was the next most important factor, cited by 23% of physicians. Other factors included burnout and frustration with the "current state of medicine."
     
  • Most physicians (80%) said it was their responsibility to broach the topic of retirement, but only 52% said they were comfortable discussing retirement.
     
  • Only 37% of administrators said it was their responsibility to broach the topic of retirement, but 74% said they were comfortable discussing retirement.
     
  • Physicians and administrators were at odds over the ideal notice period for retirement. The largest percentage of physicians (40%) expressing a notice preference said six months or less was appropriate, and 34% said no notice of retirement was required. Nearly 50% of administrators said notice of retirement should ideally be one to three years.
     
  • Physicians and administrators also had widely varying views on post-retirement employment. Nearly 40% of administrators said they expected retiring physicians to stop practicing entirely, but only 17% of physicians said they planned to leave practice entirely. More than a quarter of physicians said they would work full-time or part-time after retirement at another healthcare organization, or they would pursue other employment opportunities such as locum tenens work or telemedicine.

Initiating retirement conversations: Physicians
 

For physicians, there are three primary considerations when broaching the topic of retirement with healthcare organization administrators, Tony Stajduhar, president, Jackson Physician Search, told HealthLeaders.

1. Coping with uncertainty: It is OK to discuss retirement even if you don't have a set date. Because recruiting a physician is difficult and takes time, approach the topic early prior to having a firm date. This will give administration the time it needs to identify the right candidate to try and fill your role and fulfill your legacy.

2. It never hurts to ask: Present your ideal scenario to the administration—they may be willing to work with you because your services are highly valued. There may even be an option to shift from full-time practice to part-time if desired.

3. Make retirement mutually beneficial: Approach the topic as a win-win, whether you want to transition slowly or fully retire. You want both parties to have mutual understanding.

Initiating retirement conversations: Administrators
 

There are also three primary considerations when administrators broach the topic of a physician's retirement, Stajduhar said.

1. Retirement is not a taboo topic: Work in close coordination with your human resources department to make sure physicians know they work in a safe environment and that they will not be fired or let go early for bringing up the topic of retirement.

2. Be flexible: Knowing what physicians really want while winding down their career is important. The more flexibility you can offer, the longer the physician will stay, ideally full-time but possibly even part-time for the long-term. Offering employment options potentially avoids the need for expensive locum tenens coverage.

3. Establish guidelines: Work with your HR department to have a retirement policy in writing or as part of hospital bylaws, and make sure the policy is communicated in writing.

Ongoing recruitment
 

The survey report recommends that administrators consider having an ongoing process for physician recruitment. For administrators, there are three best practices for ongoing recruitment, Stajduhar said.

1. Be knowledgeable about recruitment timelines: Some specialties are more difficult to recruit than others. Know how long it has taken you in the past and work backward from there. To serve patient needs, a little extra capacity is always better than a vacancy.

2. Have a strong recruitment partner: If a retirement is unexpected and it is crucial to fill the position quickly, explore the option of working with an established recruitment firm. They often have access to a larger pool of resources and experienced consultants to provide expert advice.

3. Time is not on your side: The longer you wait to actively start your search, the longer you will have a vacancy. Residents and fellows are very time sensitive and usually interview in the fall. Sometimes, residents and fellows interview as early as the spring of the previous year for a start date the following summer—almost 18 months out.

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

By next year, about one-third of physicians will be over 65 and nearing retirement.

In a recent survey, lifestyle was identified as the most important factor in retirement decisions for physicians, with lifestyle cited by 44% of physicians.

The survey found physicians and administrators have widely variant expectations on the ideal notice period for announcing plans to retire.


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