Though they may not want to admit it, baby boomers are getting creaky — and a lot of their parents are requiring medical attention, too. And starting in 2014, millions of people who haven't had insurance will gain coverage and feel freer to seek care.
That all adds up to a seller's market for health care pros, particularly in the ranks of primary care. Demand is increasing "virtually across the board," says Susan Salka, chief executive of AMN Healthcare, the country's largest health care staffing and recruiting company by revenue. "And we are expecting it to become more robust in the next couple of years."
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Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts net job growth of almost 3 million health care jobs in the decade ending in 2020, a 29 percent increase, beating every other group of occupations.
Family physicians were the most sought by the employers who used physician search firm (and AMN subsidiary) Merritt Hawkins, according to its most recent annual survey. (Their average salary climbed 6 percent to $189,000.) Internists were in the second spot. Also high on employers' wish lists: hospitalists and psychiatrists.
As health care systems reorganize to cut costs and improve care, new physicians increasingly will be employed by a hospital rather than an independent practice. Sixty-three percent of recent Merritt Hawkins physician searches were for hospitals seeking staff docs, up from just 11 percent in 2004. Within two years, the firm predicts, that figure will hit three quarters.
"The amount of opportunities is overwhelming," says Andrew Geha, a third-year family practice resident who recently accepted a job offer from Floyd Valley Hospital in Le Mars, Iowa, and at the peak of his search was getting a phone call and multiple emails every day from recruiters. Geha's wife, a nurse practitioner, will be able to work at the same hospital, and a four-day workweek will give him extra time with his two children.
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Meantime, hospitals are leveraging a limited pool of physicians by leaning more heavily on nurse practitioners and physician assistants. New RNs fresh out of undergraduate school are now having some trouble landing a job, with older nurses delaying their retirement.
But advanced-practice nurses such as NPs and certified nurse-midwives, who must have postgraduate education, remain hot properties, says Peter McMenamin, senior policy fellow at the American Nurses Association. Salaries average 30 to 35 percent higher than those of hospital staff nurses, he says.
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Maureen O'Keeffe, system vice president of human resources at St. Luke's Health System in Boise, Idaho, which employs about 11,000 people, says the system hired all through the recession and estimates that some 70 advanced practice nurses will be added in 2013, as well as some 300 acute care nurses.
The physician assistant profession will add some 24,700 new jobs between 2010 and 2020, expanding by nearly 30 percent. Duke University's PA program graduated 74 students last August; as of Jan. 1, only five didn't have jobs.
"Many physicians are so in need of PAs that if you're talking to [one] they'll say 'Call me, let's talk, I need help,' " says Katherine Pocock, who was weighing several offers early this year as she neared graduation. Pocock chose PA school over med school because she found the prospect of six more years of training (and debt) "daunting." And she thought being a PA would be more lifestyle-friendly.
Salaries aren't bad, either. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, full-time PAs commanded median pay of almost $91,000 in 2010; those working in specialty settings like orthopedics or dermatology can earn more.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.