The long hours, stressful conditions, and labor shortages brought on by the pandemic have done serious harm to the physician workforce. The graphic above tracks physician burnout, a combination of emotional exhaustion, loss of agency, and depersonalization that has become the primary measure of the pandemic’s toll on workers, to reveal that physicians are demoralized like never before.
Physician burnout levels had been decreasing since 2014, in part due to practice consolidation and the expansion of team-based care models. Burnout reached its lowest levels in 2020—perhaps explained by a pandemic-induced sense of purpose—but 2021 then saw a dramatic spike in every measure of physician dissatisfaction, as the heroic glow of the early pandemic faded, and an overtaxed and understaffed delivery system became the new norm.
In explaining how the pandemic has impacted their career decisions, surveyed physicians list unsustainable burnout and stress as their top concern, and 11 percent say they have exited the profession, either for retirement or a non-clinical job, in the past two years. Four in ten surveyed physicians report changing jobs since 2020, mainly within similar or different practice settings, citing a desire for better work-life balance as their primary motivation. (It should be caveated that these data are from a smaller survey of 534 physicians, 40 percent of whom identified as “early career”.)
While the solutions here aren’t new, they are challenging: we must continue to implement team-based care models that provide physicians top-of-license practice and improved work-life balance, remove administrative tasks wherever possible, and ensure that we are communicating and engaging physicians—employed and independent alike—in organizational strategy and decision-making.