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April 1, 2021

Building a recruitment pipeline with residency programs

If we have been reminded of anything by the events of 2020, it is that change is inevitable. Change rarely happens on our timetable but when it does happen, successful recruiters embrace the change. They evolve.

Like so many aspects of health care, physician graduate medical education (GME) and physician recruitment have morphed during the last year, but there are a few things that have not changed - the growing need for both primary care physicians and specialists, the aging of the current supply of practicing physicians, and the growing deficit between physicians in training and demand.

So how do we build a pipeline of candidates on an ongoing basis through work with residency programs? Even before the pandemic, this question has never had a one-size-fits-all answer, especially because many programs work hard to keep their residents within the community. In fact, according to Michael Moore, MD, Associate Director of Internal Medicine Residency at Sovah Health, in Danville, Virginia, many programs expend a good deal of effort protecting their residents from outside intrusion, in large part because they want their residents to stay within the community after the completion of their training.

For that reason, he suggests, some hospitals or health systems in smaller communities may consider developing their own training programs to "grow their own" physicians. This route, which entails a significant commitment of time and resources, may not be for everyone but, for those systems who are willing to explore this option, the payoff can be significant. Dr. Moore is proud that Sovah Health has been very successful in retaining family medicine physicians as well as internal medicine physicians in both the academic and community settings.

However, having an internal training program is not a guarantee of easy access to the residents, especially in the current environment. Prior to the pandemic, many in-house recruiters were able to score face time with residents, including lunch and learns, after-hours family events, and even tailgate events, which helped develop the relationship with new residents who may later choose to call the community home. In the interest of safety, these opportunities have become less frequent or even nonexistent, and it is hard to predict how, when or even if they will again be options.

Provide value

So what can recruiters do to continue to develop and nurture relationships with residents and fellows? The key, according to Amber Stephens, Family Medicine Program Director at Sovah Health, is to provide something of value, whether your audience is an internal or external GME program. While treats and freebies are nice, up-to-date learning content in areas the program may not cover may be more appreciated by both program staff and residents. Adapt to the current environment by providing sessions on how to craft an eye-catching CV, utilize best practices in interviewing, understand compensation models or negotiate a contract virtually using Microsoft Teams, and programs may be more likely to welcome you in.

Start early

For most in-house recruiters working with internal residents or fellows, the goal is to become a resource for these soon-to-be job seekers. If done correctly, the work begins early in the training process, beginning with first-year residents, and builds over time. Theresa Stewart, Regional Director of Physician Recruitment with LifePoint Health in Marquette, Michigan, has worked with that residency program for many years. Theresa connects with first-year residents at their initial orientation. Ideally, she wants them to be able to put a name to her face when she sees them on the hospital campus, but she doesn’t stop there. She fosters the relationship further by meeting second-year residents every autumn in an informal setting to answer their questions on a variety of topics that are relevant to them in their physician job search. According to Theresa, when a resident reaches out to her to seek her advice on any topic, job related or otherwise, she knows she has been successful.

Adapt to COVID

Like many recruiters, Theresa acknowledges the recent pandemic has shifted some of her tactics to those that reflect a more socially distant approach. Rather than dropping by the program with homemade brown butter Rice Krispies treats unannounced, she now calls ahead to make arrangements with the program staff. Instead of providing a physical lunch and learn, Theresa and other LifePoint Regional recruiters order lunch to be delivered to the residents and then provide a virtual educational session while the residents enjoy the meal.

While working with internal residents may provide challenges, developing relationships and a pipeline with external residency programs is even more challenging. Historically, many recruiters have utilized the "shoe leather" approach to developing these relationships, dropping off treats and materials to program coordinators at nearby or desirable programs. This approach can be effective, but highly protective programs might still be resistant to what they perceive as a sales pitch and continue to restrict access. Also, hospital visiting restrictions, though easing, could also prove to be barriers in this regard.

Virtual tools are now more accessible than ever and can help with your recruitment.

Dr. Moore recommends that systems don’t overlook less traditional ways to relationship-build with nearby programs. If your health system includes practices that could provide a needed rotation to a nearby program, he suggests having the chief medical officer or other key hospital leader contact the program to see if an opportunity exists to partner.

Another method for contact with program coordinators or other key members of the residency program is sending flyers via email, requesting that the information be shared with the residents. This seemingly old-fashioned approach can be cost-effective, and it is a nonthreatening way to get the word out about your positions to appropriate residents. According to Dr. Stephens at Sovah Health, she regularly receives these solicitations and is happy to share them with her residents.

Of course, there are other ways to develop resident pipelines without going directly through the program. Career fairs aimed directly at residents, fellows and other job seekers can be tremendously helpful. Brandon Mullins, MD, a newly minted radiation oncologist who practices in Martinsville, Virginia, found his job by attending an in-person career fair. His wife grew up nearby and when he learned about a position within the community, it seemed like a perfect fit. Now that these fairs have segued to a virtual platform, they are even more effective at reaching a broad range of potential job seekers who may not be physically nearby while providing a cost-effective and safe way to make that first contact.

Another potential point of ingress with residency programs is through contact with trendsetters, according to Dr. Moore. Connecting directly with chief residents - who can be very influential - can be a great way to develop a point of entry into a program, whether the ultimate goal is to arrange an off-campus dinner, invite the resident to a family pottery-making party or just begin to introduce yourself and your positions.

Regardless of the technique, clearly building and maintaining relationships within residency programs can be a rich source of potential candidates to fill the growing needs of your health system.


Kelly Cottrell is a Regional Director, Physician Recruitment for LifePoint Health, focusing on the Virginia market. After a career in the provision of mental health services, Kelly found recruitment in 2002 and has been enjoying serving her communities ever since.

Read PracticeLink articles from Kelly Cottrell.

Kelly Cottrell

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