The Corner

Pandemic Burnout and the Predictable Shortage of Doctors

A doctor wears a protective mask outside Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, April 1, 2020. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

In the Morning Jolt for the past few weeks, I’ve compared the state of the world as we slowly emerge from the pandemic to what I envisioned in Hunting Four Horsemen, a thriller novel set “the spring after the COVID-19 pandemic” — and deliberately vague about whether that was spring 2021 or spring 2022.

In HFH, I wrote:

Some perceived a silver lining to the hurricane clouds that had lashed the world. More young people expressed interest in the healthcare profession, and applications to medical school skyrocketed. The expectation would be that those incoming classes would get their chance soon; month after endless month of treating waves of patients left many doctors with varying degrees of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Psychological and physical burnout wore away at the exhausted medical systems around the world.

Alas, that grim vision has largely come to pass: “According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, roughly 3 in 10 health-care workers have weighed leaving their profession. More than half are burned out. And about 6 in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.”

Last summer, the Association of American Medical Colleges issued a report warning that the U.S. could see an estimated shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care, by 2033. But an essay in the Harvard Business Review disagreed with the conclusions and contended, “none of these factors mean we face a shortage of physicians — they just suggest we’re doing a bad job of using our current physician population efficiently.”

But our past projections for how many doctors we expect to have, and how many patients they can see, didn’t include a gradual or sudden wave of retirements or departures from the field, driven by pandemic burnout. Ideally, we would have more young aspiring doctors in the pipeline, getting ready to take the places of doctors who leave the profession.

The thing is, we can’t just press a button or spend more money and get more doctors quickly; as the AAMC’s Dr. Janis Orlowski, put it in an interview last year, “To become a doctor, you go to college, four years medical school, then you do a residency, and that can be anywhere from three to six years. Sometimes longer, if you go on to sub-specialize.” The high-school-senior-to-doctor-pipeline is, at minimum, an eleven-year process.

Keep in mind, by 2030, all of the Baby Boomers will be at least 65 years old. If we want a large group of doctors entering the profession in 2032, we need more college freshmen on this career course now.

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