Here’s how I describe being in medical school during the coronavirus pandemic: It feels like I’m starting a job at a new building, except the building is on fire and everyone is rushing outside as they try to save their own lives. It is an appropriate comparison, as nearly 1 in 5 health care workers has left medicine since the pandemic began.
The physician exodus sends a clear message to trainees like me: “It isn’t safe here.” It’s a message that has been on display again and again throughout the pandemic.
In the early days, physicians were expected to work on the frontlines without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Some medical students spent 2020 organizing to provide donations of PPE to physicians working in intensive care units and emergency departments, succeeding in some cases where hospital systems could not. At one such organization, GetMePPEChicago, which I co-founded, we provided donations directly to physicians, who snuck this equipment into hospitals that adamantly denied PPE shortages when we asked if they were need of donations.
Physicians who have shared information on social media about getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and skyrocketing rates of hospitalizations have been harassed and threatened.
Resident physicians working in the first Covid-19 wave to hit New York who requested life and disability insurance as well as hazard pay were denied and gaslighted; their actions referred to as “not becoming of a compassionate and caring physician.”
In its initial vaccine rollout plans, Stanford Medicine left out nearly all resident physicians. At Colorado and Ohio State, hospital executives took bonus pay while health care workers saw their paychecks cut.
And just a few weeks ago, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced Covid-19 isolation and quarantine time for health care workers to zero to five days depending on staffing needs — it’s five days for non-health care workers — which means the status quo is health care professionals working while sick.
In reality, health care has not been safe for its practitioners for some time: Medical students take on exorbitant amounts of student debt (a burden associated with higher rates of burnout). Pregnant physicians in some medical specialties have nearly double the rate of pregnancy loss compared to the general population. And physicians die by suicide at the highest rate of any profession in the United States.
Where there were already flames, the pandemic added fuel to the fire.
As the exodus from health care continues, the retention of trainees — medical students and resident physicians — and the prevention of burnout in this population is more essential than ever. It’s time for governments and hospital systems to make concrete changes that send messages that health care workers are truly valued. Examples include reduced fees for board exams, more residency spots with increased paid time off and safe work hours, hazard pay, increased family leave, student loan forgiveness, consequences for sexual harassment, and compensation for time spent charting patient visits or responding to patient messages.
The message to trainees has long been blunt: “Physicians are expendable.” Tangible investments in physicians-in-training have the power to change that narrative and halt the physician exodus.
Tricia Pendergrast is a third-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She served as the executive director for GetMePPEChicago, an organization that provided personal protective equipment to health care workers on the Covid-19 frontlines.
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