Regional ties help area hospitals recruit efficiently, effectively

Making friends of traditional enemies

Recruiting doctors for rural hospitals is a competitive business. Some would even say it is cutthroat for certain specialties such as family practice. But for Mary Lu Leatherman, MBA, Certified Medical Staff Recruiter, manager of physician recruitment at Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia, NC, forging ties with hospitals that traditionally are competitors has proved to be an effective tool for filling staff openings.

It is just one method that helped Leatherman to be named one of the National Physician Recruiters of the Year in the 1996-97 National Honors for Medical Staff Development, presented annually by the National Institute of Physician Recruitment and Retention in Norcross, GA.

In the last five years, Leatherman has helped boost hospital staff from about 90 active physicians to more than 200. In the last year alone, she has added 33 staff, including five family practitioners.

"If there is one thing I have learned, it is the value of networking with my peers and colleagues," she says. With them, she has formed the Carolina Association of Physician Services — an organization so new it has no permanent office but bases itself with the president, currently Sandi Jackson, manager of physician recruitment at Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte, NC.

The association, which includes about 50 hospitals in both North and South Carolina, charges dues of $100 per year for members, Leatherman says. "We meet twice a year for educational programs and use each other for information and feedback," she explains. "We do compete with each other for candidates, but we find it is more beneficial to share that information about candidates than to keep it from each other."

By sharing information, she and her colleagues not only share costs of site visits but also build rapport with candidates by arranging for a group of visits to the same region at the same time. "This saves the candidates a lot of time," says Leatherman. "They have busy lives and appreciate our efforts."

Leatherman and her colleagues at other area hospitals also discuss their perceptions of candidates — from mundane matters such as a lack of a sense of humor, to important considerations such as a concern about area schools.

If she fills a position but knows of other good candidates, she passes on their names to the appropriate people at other hospitals. She also tells unsuccessful candidates about other opportunities.

Leatherman says she believes such "back scratching" pays off with other hospitals who will do the same for her and for the candidates. "If a position is not a good fit for them, they will still remember us when they talk to colleagues who might be looking for a position."

Putting candidates into solo practice

Another innovation at Gaston Memorial is a willingness to place newly qualified doctors into solo practice. Many recent graduates are anxious to go into practice for themselves, but they are discouraged in school from doing so, Leatherman says. Others may worry about whether they can handle the business end of running a practice. Gaston Memorial has started purchasing solo practices of physicians nearing retirement, and has opened others. This allows them to provide the practice management for those offices and to place newly qualified doctors into solo practices.

The physicians have a guaranteed income with the opportunity for a productivity bonus and all the management assistance they need. "It gives some physicians the security they need. They can establish a practice without taking a financial risk," Leatherman says. "These doctors then have all the authority of a practice. They can add partners as they want to, while still benefiting from seasoned practice administration," Leatherman says. And there is the added benefit of shared call, which allows the physicians to have 10 nights in 11 off. The program has been instrumental in bringing new recruits to Gastonia.

Much of Leatherman’s recruiting has been among younger recently qualified physicians. "The average age of our medical staff is about 38 to 40 years old," Leatherman says. "It surprises many of our recruits."

The impact of that youth is a bonus for her recruiting efforts. "The new recruits know that we have a young, contemporary trained staff. They also know that they won’t be alone," she says. "They won’t be walking down the streets of a new town and be recognized as ‘the new doctor.’ There are too many of them." Having a community of recent transplants to Gastonia also helps ease the transition for those doctors who have families. "There is a built-in support system for the wives and their children."

‘Get a Life’

The theme of all of Gaston Memorial’s recruiting materials is "Get a Life," which Leatherman believes also works with a younger audience. "There is a lot of recreational opportunity here, and we like to emphasize that there is a good quality of life to be had by young people in the area," she says.

But there still is a need at Gaston Memorial for more staff, and Leatherman says she is considering new recruiting programs. After attending several national seminars, she has started to build an Internet site to aid recruiting. "Candidates want a soft sell," she explains. "They say, ‘Send me information, and if I’m interested, I’ll let you know. But don’t call me at work, and don’t call me at home.’" Having access to a Web site means that only those with an initial interest in her community will contact her. She, in turn, can make use of e-mail to provide information to potential candidates.

"Everyone is looking for new ways to source people," she says. "This is just one of those new ways."