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1 in 4 Mass. doctors plan to leave medicine in coming years, survey finds

A physician assistant wears a stethoscope during an examination at a Dorchester health care center in 2006. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A physician assistant wears a stethoscope during an examination at a Dorchester health care center in 2006. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

One in four Massachusetts physicians plans to leave medicine in the next two years, according to a survey from the Massachusetts Medical Society that is renewing concerns about the stability of the state’s health care workforce.

More than half of the almost 600 doctors surveyed said they had already cut back on time with patients — or were likely to do so.

Fifty-five percent of doctors overall said they felt burned out. But the rate varies by gender: 63% of women doctors reported burnout, compared with 47% of men.

Concerns about staffing shortages have plagued the health care industry and many other facets of the economy. For health care workers in particular, the COVID pandemic has worsened stress and exhaustion.

“The pandemic really has added to the stress of being a physician,” said Dr. Ted Calianos, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “And for some, it's resulted in them leaving the workforce sooner than perhaps they could have. A number of physicians that I know have left.”

The most common workplace stressors doctors cited were administrative burdens, such as time spent documenting patient visits and meeting insurance company requirements.

Doctors also are struggling with a shortage of medical office staff. Calianos, a plastic surgeon, said it took him 18 months to fill an open position for a medical assistant at his practice in Mashpee. That meant he was taking patients’ vital signs and doing other tasks typically done by medical assistants, instead of seeing additional patients.

Burnout among health care workers has been recognized as a problem for years. In 2019, the state medical society released a paper calling burnout a “public health crisis.”

The situation started to improve, said Dr. Susannah Rowe, associate chief medical officer for wellness and professional vitality at Boston Medical Center. But “since the pandemic, that trend has reversed, with current studies showing the highest levels of burnout in over a decade,” Rowe said in an email.

Rowe, who authored the medical society’s new report, said as more physicians leave their jobs, the burdens on those who remain increase. “Patients are sicker and need more care, leading to an unsustainable level of stress on people working in health care,” she said.

For patients, this could result in potentially longer wait times, higher costs and worse care.

The report lists several strategies for reducing burnout, including using voice recognition technology to make documentation quicker, reducing insurance prior authorization requirements, developing flexible work policies, and offering tuition assistance to help build a pipeline of health care workers.

It also calls for a new focus on equity and eliminating sexism and racism in the workplace.

Dr. Jessica Dudley, the Boston-based chief clinical officer at Press Ganey, a company that studies patient and physician satisfaction, said health care organizations need to build inclusive cultures that support physicians of all backgrounds. And, she said, they should crowdsource ideas from doctors about how to reduce administrative burdens.

“It’s not enough to raise awareness of these issues. Solving has to be the priority,” Dudley said.

“The pandemic made it really clear that we have to do something.”

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.

This article was originally published on March 02, 2023.

Related:

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey Twitter Senior Health Reporter
Priyanka Dayal McCluskey is a senior health reporter for WBUR.

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