Employment Challenges and Opportunities During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected every field of medicine, including allergy and immunology. On June 25, 2020, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) hosted a practice management workshop to discuss employment challenges and opportunities arising from the current health crisis. The session focused on fellows in training and new allergists/immunologists seeking employment, as well as physicians facing reduced work hours, loss of income, or layoffs. Speakers included Helen Combs, Executive Director, Alabama Allergy and Asthma Center, Birmingham; Weily Soong, MD, Medical Director, Clinical Research Center of Alabama, Birmingham; Kevin J. Kelly, MD, Vice Chair, Clinical Operations, UNC Department of Pediatrics, Chapel Hill; and Rael Mazansky, MD, Co-Founder, DOC Jobs, New York, NY, a platform for biomedical professionals to find career opportunities.

Be Proactive

The experts advised allergists/immunologists who are seeking employment in private practice to be proactive. According to Ms Combs, physicians should take the initiative to contact practices that are considering hiring an allergist. She advised them to look for practices that may be lacking in an area in which they could bring expertise. Although in-person meetings may be more difficult because of the pandemic, applicants should reach out to practices in their geographic target areas to speak with physicians and practice administrators. Ms Combs said that applicants should not hesitate to suggest a virtual meeting with a potential employer.

Do Your Homework

Changes brought about by the pandemic may affect what physicians should focus on when seeking employment. Dr Soong discussed important considerations that applicants should weigh when evaluating new positions. He suggested that applicants may need to broaden their target geographic preferences, noting that rural practices may have more employment opportunities. He said that if applicants choose an area with a lower cost of living, this may free up personal funds that can be used for other pursuits.

Dr Soong also suggested that applicants try viewing their career in 5-year blocks of time. The jobs that physicians have today will not necessarily be the same jobs they will have for the remainder of their careers.

An evaluation of how well and how quickly a practice adapted to the changes brought about by the COVID-19 crisis can provide important insights on the quality of the practice. For this reason, Dr Soong advised applicants to investigate how well practices handled physician pay cuts and staff layoffs during the pandemic. Physicians should ask about the practice’s adoption of telehealth and inquire about how communication between the practice and the staff members was handled. It is also important to consider how human resource issues surrounding COVID-19 testing and employee exposures were managed.

Dr Soong encouraged applicants to consider COVID-19–related issues that may arise regarding partnership, salary, and benefits. Partnership opportunities could be delayed because of loss of income during the pandemic. Alternately, a physician who can handle the crisis professionally by helping the practice develop new opportunities, such as telehealth, may see potential acceleration of partnership. Physicians should evaluate contract length and noncompete clauses and possibly consider contract renegotiation. A discussion of benefits should include the potential need for a physician to quarantine because of exposure or illness and whether a salary would be collected during that time. Physicians may consider purchasing a short-term disability policy for income protection in the event they become ill with COVID-19 and are unable to work. In some cases, salaries have been reduced, and a discussion about a lower, but guaranteed, salary may be beneficial.

Consider Additional Training

Dr Kelly explained that the past few decades have seen a shift in the primary funding source for academic medical centers. Although funding in the past was predominantly from grants and state aid, he said, it is now largely from patient care. As a result, revenues at academic centers have fallen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the halting of elective and nonurgent care. More than 90% of academic medical centers that train allergists and immunologists have instituted hiring freezes. Faculty size has been reduced in many centers and numerous support staff have been placed on furlough.

Dr Kelly offered several suggestions to applicants seeking employment within an academic center during the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduating fellows may consider additional training, such as a third-year fellowship; training in gene therapy, clinical laboratory immunology, or pharmacology; or a master’s in business administration programs. He also suggested that physicians consider volunteering to provide help in the academic department where they are seeking employment. For example, an allergist or immunologist may offer to practice in areas that may be experiencing a shortage of physicians, such as in urgent care or primary care. To enhance the impression they make on potential employers, physicians should ensure that their résumés highlight leadership strengths with concrete examples of accomplishments beyond the typical academic sphere.

Consider Nonclinical Opportunities

Dr Mazansky offered advice to physicians who may be seeking new opportunities outside of clinical medicine. He pointed out that even before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, the demand for physicians and scientists in nonclinical roles was high, and the demand still exists. Employment opportunities for physicians include positions within finance, biotechnology, telemedicine, healthcare information technology, insurance, pharmaceutical, and diagnostics companies. Part-time and full-time positions are available for physicians at all stages of practice, from newly graduated fellows to clinicians with decades of experience.

Dr Mazansky advised physicians to carefully review the job requirements listed by hiring companies and to apply only to positions that are appropriate for their experience and geographic location. He said that a professionally written, business quality résumé of 1 to 2 pages and a well-written cover letter are vital, and both should be tailored specifically to each opportunity.

Find a Mentor

The experts emphasized the importance of developing relationships with mentors during these unprecedented times and explained that mentors can be found within a physician’s fellowship program or practice, as well as outside of their clinical division. They also recommended that the physicians explore the AAAAI website, which contains contact information on members of committees and interest groups within the organization.

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