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Beyond burnout: Why physicians are leaving their jobs in droves

Over 100,000 healthcare workers left their job from 2021 to 2022 citing burnout, inadequate pay, and more.
By admin
Oct 23, 2023, 10:00 AM

Approximately 145,000 healthcare professionals left the workforce from 2021 to 2022, according to a new report from Definitive Healthcare. The majority of the exodus came from physicians (49%) followed by nurse practitioners (24%) and physician assistants (9%).  

The fields of internal medicine and family practice lost the most providers. Workers in these specialties were most likely to be on the frontlines, risking COVID-19 exposure and facing the burden of providing critical care and support to patients during the challenging times of the pandemic. 

One of the main reasons healthcare workers are quitting their jobs is burnout. Long hours, high stress, and low pay have taken a toll on doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.  

But the problems didn’t start with the pandemic, they were only exasperated by it. Burnout has been a well-documented problem in healthcare – 40% of physicians reported experiencing burnout in 2013. By 2017, that number had climbed to 51%, an increase of 25% in only four years.  

Prior to the pandemic, 35% to 54% of nurses and physicians experienced burnout, according to the National Academies.

The other specialties most affected by the mass exodus from healthcare: clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatric medicine, optometry, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, obstetrics/gynecology, and general surgery. Most of these specialities require in-person examination and might have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. The Definitive Healthcare report suggests that if private practices or organizations had to shut their doors for too long, it might have led to permanent closing contributing to these numbers.  

Not surprisingly, the physicians with the most in-person demand experienced the most burnout, beginning with physicians in emergency medicine (65%), followed by physicians in internal medicine (60%), pediatric medicine (59%), obstetrics/gynecology (58%), and infectious disease (58%). Physicians in these specialities also were the “most overworked” according to the report.  

Another factor contributing to the staffing shortage is the aging workforce. The report found that 33% of physicians are over the age of 60, and many are reaching retirement age. There aren’t enough younger workers to replace them, particularly in rural areas where it can be difficult to attract and retain healthcare workers. 

Moreover, with the aging of Baby Boomers, there is a growing demand for healthcare services, putting additional pressure on healthcare providers and hospitals. 

Contributors to burnout

Work-life balance

The healthcare profession, in general, poses significant challenges in terms of work-life balance. Healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses, frequently contend with long working hours, leaving them with limited personal time. On average, physicians work approximately 16 hours more per week than the average employee in the United States. This stark difference in weekly work hours can take a toll on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

Physicians rank third in terms of weekly work hours, right after firefighters and teachers, with an average of 50 hours per week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 48% of physicians reported feeling burned out when working between 50 and 60 hours per week, and that number increases as work hours increase.  

Compensation dissatisfaction 

Insufficient salary is another significant contributor to burnout, with approximately 48% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their salaries. A similar poll found that about 45% of healthcare professionals believed that increased compensation would alleviate feelings of fatigue and financial stress. Despite this, hospitals and health systems are making efforts to attract and retain healthcare workers by offering increased salaries, sign-on bonuses, and expanded benefits. 

Hospitals are investing more in hospital employees and physician salaries compared to previous years. While physician salaries are on the rise overall, not all specialties are experiencing equal growth. Specialties like oncology, gastroenterology, and anesthesiology saw the most significant increases in compensation. Meanwhile, specialties such as ophthalmology, emergency medicine, and rheumatology experienced declines – potentially contributing to future staffing shortages in these fields. 

EHR woes

Electronic health records (EHRs) play a crucial role in healthcare, aiming to enhance communication and patient outcomes by minimizing paperwork and simplifying administrative processes. Despite these goals, many healthcare providers believe there’s room for improvement in reducing the time spent on tasks such as charting, documentation, and managing reports, with approximately 60% of respondents identifying it as the primary cause of their burnout.  

Looking toward the future

The exodus of healthcare professionals from 2021 to 2022 reflects a deep-rooted and multifaceted crisis in the healthcare sector. The challenges of the pandemic accentuated existing issues, but burnout among healthcare workers has been an escalating concern long before COVID-19. While the urgency of pandemic care weighed heavily on specialties that demanded in-person interactions, a combination of factors has been at play. Work-life imbalance, compensation dissatisfaction, and inefficiencies related to electronic health record systems have all contributed to the high burnout rates. The aging workforce, coupled with a rising demand for healthcare services due to the aging Baby Boomer generation, further compounds the situation.  

These findings underscore the need for systemic change, focusing not just on recruitment, but also on retention strategies that address the root causes of burnout and dissatisfaction. The aim should be to create a sustainable healthcare environment that prioritizes the well-being of its workers, as much as the patients they serve. As the backbone of the healthcare system, the continued well-being, motivation, and retention of healthcare professionals is imperative for the future health of the nation. 

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