How a new medical recruiter has overcome the toughest possible start

Medical recruitment firm BluePrint Medical had been operating for only a short time when COVID-19 hit. Company director, Oliver Hastie, says the medical world was hit harder than most people might expect but resilience and adaptability have been the key to the new business’s survival.

They said that starting a business would be tough, but we certainly picked the year to test our resilience.

Before the chaos of COVID-19 hit, we had put in 10 months of long hours, blood, sweat and tears and BluePrint Medical was starting to make waves in the market.

We were training our first hire, moving into a beautiful new office and had already provided doctors to each state and territory of Australia.

The tuna and rice days were seemingly behind us and we are finally taking salaries.

Within two weeks, 80% of our existing and future contract book was decimated and permanent recruitment ground to a halt. One of our directors became stuck in hotel isolation after a trip to the US.

We packed up the office and headed home to work.

Medical recruitment is often considered a recession-proof market. Government investment in healthcare and hospital funding continues to expand year-on-year. Add COVID-19 into the mix, with a focus on hospital services and mental health initiatives, and you would think this recruitment sector would be best placed to thrive.

However, Australian medical recruitment is a candidate-short industry that is heavily reliant on travel.

Regional areas rely on contract/locum doctors visiting from interstate and metropolitan areas.

Border closures, mass flight cancellations, lack of PPE for doctors and candidates being locked down turned the market on its head.

Large portions of locum books disappeared and permanent recruitment was put on hold. To compound the problem for our business, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of flights were cancelled and still sit in credit stuck to specific doctors’ names.

Flight companies were unwilling to refund and flight booking companies were having their own problems to contend with. This was devastating for our cash flow, which I presume was the case for many agencies in our industry.

Although things looked bleak, being an organically-grown small business gave us time to adapt. We kept our operating costs in check and had some financial surplus from staying within our means. We tried not to panic but assess our core business strategy and principles.

Firstly, we needed to continue being responsive, respectful and flexible in assisting our clients and candidates. Doctors needed timely and regular updates on travel and borders, support and understanding when needing to cancel contracts and help to arrange safe passage home as domestic and international flights evaporated seemingly overnight.

Although there were few roles with clients available, those who did have gaps needed new ideas and ways to fill them.

In other ways we had to change our approach. Our strategy has always been to provide longstanding jobs for our doctors, helping meet their lifestyle and career aspirations whilst at the same time providing consistency to our clients. In these ever-changing circumstances we had to temporarily move focus to more immediate issues, finding our doctors local jobs and helping regional communities with deep geographically led candidate searches.

It is amazing how people pull together in such situations if you network hard enough - people referring their friends, private practice doctors coming back to public practice, doctors who themselves could be considered vulnerable deciding they want to help rather than isolate.

Everyone has tough stories to tell and will have more to face as the pandemic continues. But we can, and should, slowly start to look back at the positives.

One of our obstetricians kindly committing to a 30-hour drive to pick up a roster from a remote hospital (there are some thankful new parents out there!).

A psychiatrist delayed his plans to travel home to spend two weeks isolating on his own in a hotel room, providing telepsychiatry services prior to starting at a regional hospital in the Northern Territory (he has been away from family for months now).

Our staff in Sydney also made the time to raise money for a local health service in Sutherland. This went towards assisting frontline healthcare workers as well as contributing towards new fever clinics, training, research, PPE equipment and ventilators.

Although the short-term impact on our business was damaging, our long hours and response has allowed us to increase our candidate pools and work with new clients. This will hopefully lead to an increase in desk equity which will help when the market picks up.

In the height of lockdown, we continued to stick to our business growth plan and through multiple stages of phone and video interviewing, found two talented recruiters who have joined our BluePrint Medical family.

It has been a steep learning curve of video training on systems, processes, and medical recruitment basics. This hiring policy was a risk. We had never hired staff remotely before, never mind also training remotely.

We finally got to meet our new members of staff in person a month after they started with us and we could not be happier with them. With hard work paying off and our recruitment desks back on the upward trajectory, we are starting the search for two additional hires - GP and emergency medicine recruiters.

The outlook for the medical industry is a positive one. With less travel, Sydney based hospitals are seeing some of their highest fill rates for training roles. Many doctors have turned back from private practice work to pick up public hospital hours. Telehealth has sped up its growth with numerous new technologies and businesses growing. Previously jetsetting locum doctors are becoming ingrained into their own state and local communities.

Although the medical recruitment landscape may go back to its old ways, recruiters have become more inventive and clients can look at the bigger picture with fresh eyes.

As we look forward to the country opening back up, the recruiters who adapted and have been there for their hospitals and doctors can expect better times ahead and stronger relationships built in adversity.

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