JAMA Report: Burned Out, Many Physicians Are Planning to Quit

April 14, 2022
A recent JAMA article looked at physician burnout, and brought forward recent survey data showing that U.S. physician burnout has now approached 50 percent, and will lead to MDs leaving the field

Researchers at the Larry A. Green Center in Virginia have spent two years surveying physicians in practice; and, in a recent interview with JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Green Center codirector Rebecca S. Etz, Ph.D., confirmed that physicians are becoming burned out, and some are leaving or planning on leaving. As she told JAMA at the end of last month, “It’s been bad for primary care over the pandemic and it’s getting worse.”

The JAMA article points out that “Another national health care worker survey, the Coping With COVID study, found that burnout approached 50 percent in 2020 among 9266 physicians across medical disciplines. Last year’s survey results, which haven’t been published yet, are more dire still, according to study coauthor Mark Linzer, M.D. a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota whose research focuses on burnout. His takeaway: burnout has increased considerably as the pandemic has dragged on.”

“It has been a very, very trying 2 years for the clinician workforce, and the health care workforce in general,” Linzer told JAMA. “Particularly over the last 6 months, I think people have really just needed to process what they’ve been through and have time to recuperate. But there really has not been time, given all the pent-up demand for care and the continuing pandemic and the Omicron surge.”

As the JAMA article went on, “Meanwhile, Lotte Dyrbye, M.D., MHPE, chief well-being officer for the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said that some physicians have had the opposite experience during the pandemic—too little work. ‘An important thing to realize is that how the pandemic has affected physicians is incredibly heterogeneous,’ she said in an interview.”

Further, the article noted, “Many medical specialties saw the workload decrease in the pandemic’s first year and even during subsequent surges, when demand for non–COVID-19–related visits and elective procedures evaporated. Some practices watched their business and finances dry up. Experts warn that the COVID-19 pandemic, now entering its third year, has pushed an already fragile workforce to the brink. For many clinicians the workplace challenges—ranging from high stress and burnout to understaffing and reduced income, often in combination—have become insurmountable.”

The JAMA article went on to state that “Worsening staffing issues are now the biggest stressor for clinicians. Health care worker shortages, especially in rural and otherwise underserved areas of the country, have reached critical and unsustainable levels, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). ‘The evidence shows that health workers have been leaving the workforce at an alarming rate over the past 2 years,’ Thomas R. Cunningham, PhD, a senior behavioral scientist at NIOSH, wrote in a statement emailed to JAMA.”

And, “In the absence of national data, Etz says the Green Center data point to a meaningful reduction in the primary care workforce during the pandemic. In the February 2022 survey, 62 percent of 847 clinicians had personal knowledge of other primary care clinicians who retired early or quit during the pandemic and 29 percent knew of practices that had closed up shop. That’s on top of a preexisting shortage of general and family medicine physicians. ‘I think we have a platform that is collapsed, and we haven’t recognized it yet,’ Etz said.”

Further, the article noted, “In fact, surveys indicate that a “great clinician resignation” lies ahead. A quarter of clinicians said they planned to leave primary care within 3 years in Etz’s February survey. The Coping With COVID study predicts a more widespread clinician exodus: in the pandemic’s first year, 23.8% of the more than 9000 physicians from various disciplines in the study and 40% of 2301 nurses planned to exit their practice in the next 2 years. (The Coping With COVID study was funded by the American Medical Association, the publisher of JAMA.)”

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