The increased stress doctors have faced throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is making some feel like they are providing worse patient care, according to a new survey of primary care physicians from 10 wealthy countries.
Younger doctors also reported higher rates of feeling distressed and burned out — a finding that was broadly consistent across the countries included.
The survey, commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund, asked more than 9,500 primary care physicians about their emotional well-being and how that had changed since the pandemic started. The survey’s sponsors warned that increased burnout among this group of doctors could exacerbate a shortage of primary care physicians. They also noted that many people put off primary and other forms of medical care during the pandemic, disruptions that could worsen people’s health into the future.
“The pandemic is taking an alarming toll on the well-being of our primary care workforce,” said David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund.
The results echo those from other surveys throughout the course of the pandemic, with clinicians of all stripes reporting increased rates of anxiety, depression, and burnout. Many have considered leaving the field.
Notably, the survey revealed similar sentiments from country to country, including those that had vastly different experiences during the pandemic and have different types of health systems. More than half of respondents in every country — from 56% in Switzerland to 93% in Germany — said that their workload has increased since the start of the pandemic. More than 1 in 3 physicians in seven of the countries said they felt burned out — a rate that ticked up to 44% among doctors in the United States.
The consistency was surprising because by so many metrics, the U.S. health system lags behind those of other countries, said Munira Gunja, Commonwealth’s senior researcher for international health policy and practice innovations. The new report highlights that “all health systems need to prioritize the well-being of the primary care workforce,” Gunja said.
There was also an age divide in many of the countries. In eight, younger physicians — those under 55 — reported notably higher rates of feeling burned out than their older colleagues. In the United States specifically, half of younger primary care physicians said they are burned out, compared to 39% of older doctors.
It was the physicians under distress who were also more likely to report that they felt the care they could provide during the pandemic had declined “somewhat” or “a lot.” In the United States, 28% of doctors who were stressed or burned out cited worsening medical care, versus just 8% of doctors who didn’t report emotional challenges.
Globally, few physicians who reported emotional distress said they sought care themselves, though younger primary care doctors were more likely than older clinicians to pursue counseling.
The survey was conducted from February to September 2022. It included physicians from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
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