Panic attacks, fatigue: Some doctors say they’ll quit over COVID stress, study finds
McClatchy Washington Bureau April 4, 2022
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See more stories here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
(Tribune News Service) — A quarter of doctors who participated in a February survey said they plan to leave their primary care jobs within the next three years because of stress over COVID-19, according to researchers.
The survey, conducted by The Larry A. Green Center, a Virgina-based medical research organization, showed that primary care physicians’ stress levels improved as vaccines became widely available in the U.S. last summer, but declined again to pre-vaccine levels when the delta variant of the coronavirus sparked waves of new outbreaks across the country.
As of February, only a fifth of the medical facilities where survey respondents worked were fully staffed and 44% had open clinician positions they could not fill, according to the survey.
Rebecca Etz, co-director of the Green Center, told the JAMA Network, an online medical journal, that some clinicians surveyed reported experiencing suicidal ideation, panic attacks in their sleep and the need to pull their cars over on the way home from work to vomit due to stress brought on by the pandemic.
“Our survey showed, going as far as 6 months into the pandemic, half the [clinicians] still didn’t have PPE,” Etz told JAMA Network. “People were wearing coffee filters and garbage bags to take care of their patients.”
As part of the survey, primary care doctors were asked about the state of their mental and physical health.
“I am emotionally traumatized and experiencing severe burnout,” one doctor said, according to JAMA.
“I cannot continue to work at this pace and retire at 65. I am 50. I am chronically exhausted. There is no relief in sight,” another clinician said.
According to survey results, 62% of 847 clinicians surveyed had personal knowledge of other primary care clinicians who retired early or quit during the coronavirus pandemic and 29% knew of practices that had closed.
Some doctors reported that their hospitals were severely understaffed as COVID-19 patients flooded through their doors, while others said they had too little work during the pandemic, according to JAMA. At the beginning of the pandemic and during subsequent COVID-19 surges, patients had to postpone or forgo regular medical appointments due to restrictions on in-person care, causing many clinics to suffer financially.
Today, as the pandemic enters its third year, understaffing is the biggest problem facing medical practices across the country, researchers say.
“Workforce in health care is an issue of national significance and is reaching a crisis in many parts of the country,” Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association trade group, told the PEW Research Center. “Leading up to the pandemic there were already significant workforce challenges. The pandemic has amplified them, stemming from fatigue after wave after successive waves of patients.”
In November, when a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs, the health care and social assistance industry saw the second-highest increase in the rate of people quitting compared with other industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A major contributing factor to the mass exodus of doctors is the high rate of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and post-traumatic stress disorder among frontline medical workers, Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, chief wellbeing officer for the University of Colorado School of Medicine told JAMA.
According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, 38% of health care workers surveyed reported experiencing anxiety and depression during 2020. And a 2021 survey by the Physicians Foundation found that 20% of physicians knew of a doctor who had considered, attempted or died by suicide during the pandemic.
One way to combat physician burnout is for medical practices to do more to retain hospital staff, who help alleviate some of the pressure on doctors by completing non-medical tasks, Dr. Mark Linzer, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota told JAMA.
“The ‘great resignation’ is affecting a lot of our staff, who don’t feel necessarily cared for by their organizations,” Linzer told the journal. “The staff are leaving, which leaves the physicians to do more non-physician work. So really, in order to solve this, we need to pay attention to all of our health care workers.”
©2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.