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How to Prepare for the Impact of Rural and Urban Physician Retirements

Jackson Physician Search
April 18, 2023


Industry leaders are bracing for a wave of rural and urban physician retirements. According to demographics compiled by the AAMC in 2021, 46.7% of physicians were over 55. This means nearly half of all physicians will be at retirement age in eight years. But, of course, age isn’t the only factor driving retirement. In the recent Jackson Physician Search physician retirement survey, 24% of physicians cited burnout as the most likely reason for retiring– more than those citing lifestyle changes (23%) or achieving financial stability (22%).

Healthcare leaders nationwide are concerned about the impact these retirements will have on their organizations and the communities they serve. Still, of course, not all organizations will be impacted to the same degree. Data from HRSA and cited by Rural Health Information Hub found 68.5% of physicians in rural areas were 55 or older in 2019. This same research found 52% of urban physicians were over 55, suggesting rural organizations can expect to be impacted even more by the coming wave of rural physician retirements. However, burnout may be worse among typically overworked urban physicians. This, coupled with age, suggest urban organizations won’t escape the impact of increased physician retirements.

Both urban and rural healthcare organizations must brace for impact, and yet, the aforementioned Jackson Physician Search study found 69% of administrators don’t have succession plans at their organizations. Succession planning is critical for easing retirement transitions, and rural and urban organizations must prioritize it. However, it’s not the only thing they can do to prepare for and minimize the impact of rural and urban physician retirements. Keep reading as we explore the recommended approaches for rural and urban organizations.

Mitigate Burnout to Delay Urban Physician Retirements

While the average physician age in urban areas may be slightly lower, as Baby Boomers continue to reach retirement age, these physicians will likely feel the shift in the physician-to-patient ratio. Admittedly, it may not be as intense as it is in rural areas. Still, for an already overworked physician workforce, the uptick may worsen already high levels of burnout, driving even more physicians into retirement.

Leaders of urban health organizations must therefore prioritize burnout mitigation to avoid early retirements caused by burnout. The causes of burnout are many, and there is no quick solution, but there are a few immediate actions management can take to fight burnout and improve job satisfaction. Improving communication between physicians and management is an essential first step. In a 2022 joint study from Jackson Physician Search and MGMA, physicians ranked “two-way communication with management” as the most important factor in job satisfaction — above compensation. In fact, 85% of physicians said two-way communication with management was “very” or “somewhat important” to their job satisfaction. However, when asked to rate their employers in this area, just one in four said two-way communication at their organization was “good” or “very good.”

Listening to physicians’ troubles will only get you so far. Leaders must take steps to reduce administrative burden, recognize and reward physicians’ hard work, and recruit support when needed.

Other ways to address burnout include offering more schedule flexibility, lowering productivity expectations, and finding creative ways for physicians to improve work-life balance. Physicians of all ages will welcome these options, but it is especially important to physicians approaching retirement age. In the recent retirement survey, nearly half (43%) of physician respondents said they hope to reduce hours in the years leading up to retirement. Extend the careers of physicians approaching retirement age by offering them flexibility and reducing their stress and burnout in their final years.

Embrace Flexibility to Counteract Rural Physician Retirements

Flexibility is equally, if not more, important for rural organizations. They, too, must give retiring physicians the leeway they need to reduce hours and go part-time if it will keep them working in some capacity. However, they must also offer this flexibility to potential replacements as a means of attracting candidates to the rural physician job.

In a joint study from and Jackson Physician Search, nearly half of the rural physicians (46%) cited “improved work-life balance” as a top factor in their decision to practice rural, the most commonly cited reason. More than a quarter (27%) said the ability to work part-time or flexible hours was a top factor.  Rural organizations should appeal to candidates’ desire for better work-life balance and demonstrate how the rural job can deliver.

If the rural organization’s patient load doesn’t lend itself to part-time work, they can build care teams leveraging advanced practice providers. These care teams, made up of providers working flexible hours, can meet the healthcare needs of the community as well as the lifestyle needs of the providers. Leveraging a care team will also reduce the impact of a single physician’s retirement.

Succession Planning for Both Rural and Urban Organizations   

Most importantly, both urban and rural healthcare organizations must create succession plans that forecast potential physician retirements and detail the actions required when a physician gives notice. Breaking the process into steps can make creating a succession plan more manageable. When a well-thought-out succession plan is in place, a replacement plan is in motion even before the retiring physician officially gives notice. This lessens the burden felt throughout the practice when a physician retires and ensures continuity of patient care for the community.

If your organization is expecting physician retirements in the near or distant future, now is the time to start planning. The Jackson Physician Search recruitment team can help you map out a timeline and, when you’re ready, begin sourcing candidates for the vacant role. Reach out today to learn more.


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