Health professionals shut doors over Covid stress

7 mins read

Doctors and health professionals cannot keep their clinics open due to the mental exhaustion brought by the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

Thousands of medical practices have already closed during the pandemic, a July survey conducted by nonprofit group Physicians Foundation covering 3, 500 doctors revealed. The survey showed that about 8% of the doctors have closed their offices in the previous months. This can equate to some 16, 000 practices.

Apart from those who already shut their doors, another 4% expressed their intent to also close within the year.

Doctors and nurses, who look after their own health safety, also left their jobs or have retired early. Composed of these health professionals are already of old age or have pre-existing conditions. 

Earlier this year, during the worst outbreaks of the virus, health professionals have already left or taken a break. They can’t gather the energy to get back to the medical field after that period.

The Larry A. Green Center with the Primary Care Collaborative, also a nonprofit group, have noted the same patterns in healthcare. Surveyed last September, nearly a fifth of primary care clinicians say that someone in their field plans to retire or have already retired because of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus is challenging the mental health of healthcare professionals. About half already said their mental exhaustion was at an all-time high.

Dr. Joan Benca, 65, also tells the same story of quitting, primarily because of family obligations.

She has to look after her grandchild whose parents both handle administrative positions in a hospital handling the worst COVID-19 patients. 

“Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I would have still been working because it was not my plan to retire at that point,” Benca admitted.

A 66-year-old anesthesiologist Dr. Michael Peck from Rockville, Maryland also left his work in the hospital’s intensive care unit. He was primarily attending to critically ill COVID-19 patients, intubating them, while worrying about his own health.

“When the day was over, I just said, ‘I think I’m done’ — I want to live my life, and I don’t want to get ill,” he said. Peck is now serving as a chief medical officer for a startup health facility.

During these hard times, the Paycheck Protection Program has helped doctors strive. The program was authorized by Congress to help business and medical practices.

Dr. Ripley Hollister, a family physician in Colorado Springs, said that the money kind of made him “solid”. He said that the volume “is really coming back.”

Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz, the co-founder of Gist Healthcare, said that it will still depend on how the pandemic will turn out. Several doctors’ group will look for a buyer that intends to roll up practices into a larger business.

Even before the virus outbreak, a doctor, who refused to be identified, said it was her and her partner’s plan to negotiate with hospitals to purchase their pediatric purchase.

Patient visits were dragged by 15% below normal, the doctor said, and it has been a constant worry to make payroll and having sufficient doctors and staff to see patients. Her employees must face agitated parents as the number of virus cases continues to increase, she said.

“They’re yelling and cussing at my staff,” she said.

Another alternative is working for telemedicine, she noted, but it is not an easy job to commit to.

“A lot of physicians were hanging on by a thread from burnout before the pandemic even started,” Dr. Susan R. Bailey, the president of the American Medical Association, said.

Smaller practices struggle to find sufficient personal protective equipment and do not have a reliable source of gloves and masks.

“I was literally on eBay looking for masks,” she said, noting that the financials to fund PPEs is another aspect.

Dr. Bailey sounds the alarm that some of the doctors will develop PSTD from the chronic stress of caring for patients.

Courtney Barry, 40, a family nurse practitioner at a rural health clinic in Soledad, California, witnessed how the coronavirus cases ballooned in her area.

Barry, who has spent more than a decade as a nurse, said she has never had anything “like this that is just such a high level of stress and just keeps going,” she said.

She cut her days in her work until making a hard decision to leave. She is struggling to figure out what’s next for her career. 

“My intention is to stay in medicine, although I would not be totally opposed to doing something in a totally different area, which is something that I would not have said in the past,” she said.

Patients, too, are affected. Hollister, a family physician, said that the closed practices can lead to “a significant impairment to patients’ access to medical care.” Specialists and primary care doctors have left their community and he is tending to more patients who have no doctors to run to.

McGregory worries about these instances. She cannot convince some families in her practice to find a pediatrician immediately. “They are waiting, which I discouraged because I think every child should have a medical home,” she said.