Half of Younger Primary Care Physicians Burned Out, Older Physicians Anticipate Leaving Profession: Survey

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New results of a Commonwealth Fund survey spell concern for a profession already experiencing shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Half of primary care physicians under age 55 in the United States report being burned out, while 61 percent said they’ve experienced emotional distress since the start of the pandemic. 

Physicians experiencing stress, emotional distress, or burnout were also more likely to say the quality of care they provided declined during the crisis. 

Compounding these findings, 45 percent U.S. primary care physicians aged 55 or older plan to stop seeing patients within the next one to three years, according to the survey. Prior to COVID-19, data showed American medical students were already less likely to pursue a career in primary care, instead opting for specialty fields. 

By 2034, it’s estimated the country will face a shortage of 17,800 to 48,000 primary care physicians. 

The Commonwealth Fund carried out surveys in 10 high-income countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Over 9,500 physicians were included in the surveys.

“The survey findings confirmed what many feared to be true,” said Commonwealth Fund president David Blumenthal in a briefing. “The pandemic is taking an alarming toll on the well-being of our primary care workforce, both here in the U.S. and around the world.”

Findings regarding heightened emotional distress among younger physicians are similar to previous research, which found emotional and psychological distress among junior medical staff tended to be higher than their older peers, even in regions where COVID-19 rates were relatively low, authors noted. 

In the United States, 65 percent of primary care physicians said their workload increased compared with before the pandemic, thanks to a combination of factors including a greater backlog of patients needing care, overall sicker patients, and more time spent on administrative tasks. 

Although younger physicians were more likely to seek professional help to cope with their mental health challenges, findings showed all physicians, regardless of age, sought treatment at “fairly low rates.” 

In the United States, just 16 percent of physicians under age 55 said they sought professional help for a mental health problem since the beginning of COVID-19. That total declined to just 6 percent among older physicians who also reported emotional distress. 

The high levels of physician burnout, stress and emotional distress reported may lead to an acceleration of primary care provider shortages in high income countries, authors wrote. 

“For decades we have known that the U.S. and many other countries have faced a shortage of primary care physicians, and these latest findings suggest that without interventions this shortage may soon reach record levels,” Blumenthal said. 

Authors stressed policymakers and health system leaders should take steps to “ensure that physicians practice in healthy work environments that are conducive to delivering quality patient care.” This includes ensuring all primary care physicians have access to and use mental health services.  

In the United States, several efforts have been made to bolster mental health care access for physicians and health workers, including initiatives aimed at increasing recruitment of professionals dedicated to serving this workforce.

To address the shortage of primary care professionals, authors recommend increasing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for the services to attract more young medical school graduates. 

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