About 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left medicine since the pandemic began — Here's why

With about 1 in 5 healthcare workers leaving medicine since the pandemic began, The Atlantic explored numerous reasons why providers are leaving healthcare, coming up with at least seven key reasons. 

The U.S. healthcare sector has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020, according to estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eighteen percent of healthcare staff have quit since the pandemic began, while 12 percent have been laid off, according to survey research company Morning Consult. Of the remaining workers, 31 percent have thought about leaving their employer, according to Morning Consult.  

"Physicians are some of the most resilient people out there," Sheetal Rao, MD, a primary care physician who left her job last October, told The Atlantic. "When this group of people starts leaving en masse, something is very wrong."

Excluding those who have left the field because of layoffs or conditions linked to long COVID, below are seven reasons healthcare workers are exiting the field, per The Atlantic

1. Many healthcare workers believed vaccines would ease the traumas endured in initial surges. However, plateauing vaccination rates, lifted mask mandates and the delta variant undid such hopes. The unrealized promise of "some sort of normalcy has made the feelings of exhaustion and frustration worse," Amanda Bettencourt, PhD, president-elect of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and assistant professor at Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, told The Atlantic. 

2. COVID-19 patients may be more difficult to deal with now. Currently, most are unvaccinated, and while some didn't have a choice in the matter, those who did are often belligerent. Some resist basic medical procedures, while others have assaulted nurses and yelled for treatments the FDA hasn't authorized for COVID-19 treatment. Americans initially applauded its healthcare heroes; now, "we're at war with a virus and its hosts are at war with us," Cassandra Werry, RN, an intensive care nurse in Idaho, told The Atlantic. 

3. These experiences inflict deep psychological scars. "We want to be rooting for our patients," Artec Durham, RN, told The Atlantic. "But anyone I know who's working in COVID has zero compassion remaining, especially for people who chose not to get the vaccine." That's why Mr. Durham became a travel nurse, which is time-limited and more lucrative. He still provides care but is emotionally detached, unsettled by his own numbness. For a healthcare provider, being shaken by a patient's death comes with the territory, but becoming unmoved is almost worse, The Atlantic reported.

4. Many said they left medicine because of how their institutions acted amid the pandemic. Several workers told The Atlantic that hospitals cut salaries, benefits and raises; forced staff to work more shifts; denied paid time off or reduced hours; failed to provide sufficient personal protective equipment; and downplayed the severity of their experiences. "I've been a nurse 45 years and I've never seen this level of disaffection between clinicians and their employers," said Gerard Brogan, RN, director of the California Nurses Association and director of nursing practice at National Nurses United. Dubbed "the Great Resignation," the same is true for nearly every industry, with record numbers of Americans leaving their jobs this April, July and August.

5. Between 35 and 54 percent of U.S. nurses and physicians already felt burned out before the pandemic, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Now, amid the pandemic, many have been pushed to simply resign. 

6. Hospitals are also flooded by non-COVID patients who delayed care amid the pandemic and require more intensive care. "It doesn't feel great between surges," Esther Choo, MD, emergency physician at Portland-based Oregon Health and Science University, told The Atlantic. "Something always replaces COVID."

7. Healthcare workers want to help patients, and their inability to adequately do so is taking its toll. Providers aren't exiting the field because they can't handle their jobs — they're quitting because they can't handle being unable to do their jobs.


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