CHARLESTON, S.C. – Melanie Gray Miller, a 30-year-old physician, wiped away tears as she described the isolation she felt after losing a beloved patient.
“It was at the end of a night shift, when it seems like bad things always happen,” said Dr. Miller, who is training to become a pediatrician.
The infant had been sick for months in the Medical University of South Carolina’s pediatric intensive care unit and the possibility that he might not improve was obvious, Dr. Miller recalled during an April meeting with physicians and hospital administrators. But the suddenness of his death still caught her off guard.
“I have family and friends that I talk to about things,” she said. “But no one truly understands.”
Doctors don’t typically take time to grieve at work. But during that recent meeting, Dr. Miller and her colleagues opened up about the insomnia, emotional exhaustion, trauma, and burnout they experienced from their time in the pediatric ICU.
“This is not a normal place,” Grant Goodrich, the hospital system’s director of ethics, said to the group, acknowledging an occupational hazard the industry often downplays. “Most people don’t see kids die.”
The recurring conversation, scheduled for early-career doctors coming off month-long pediatric ICU rotations, is one way the hospital helps staffers cope with stress, according to Alyssa Rheingold, a licensed clinical psychologist who leads its resiliency program.
“Often the focus is to teach somebody how to do yoga and take a bath,” she said. “That’s not at all what well-being is about.”
Dr. Miller says working in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit can be tough. “In medicine, we’re just expected to be resilient 24/7,” she says. The trauma and stress from patients dying can be particularly hard to process.
Burnout in the health care industry is a widespread problem that long predates the COVID-19 pandemic, though the chaos introduced by the coronavirus’s spread made things worse, physicians and psychologists said. Health systems across the country are trying to boost morale and keep clinicians from quitting or retiring early, but the stakes are higher than workforce shortages.
Rates of physician suicide, partly fueled by burnout, have been a concern for decades.
“Why go into primary care when you can make twice the money doing something with half the stress?” said Daniel Crummett, a retired primary care doctor who lives in North Carolina. “I don’t know why anyone would go into primary care.”
Doctors say they are fed up with demands imposed by hospital administrators and health insurance companies, and they’re concerned about the notoriously grueling shifts assigned to medical residents during the early years of their careers. A long-standing stigma keeps physicians from prioritizing their own mental health, while their jobs require them to routinely grapple with death, grief, and trauma. The culture of medicine encourages them to simply bear it.
“Resiliency is a cringe word for me,” Dr. Miller said. “In medicine, we’re just expected to be resilient 24/7. I don’t love that culture.”
And though the pipeline of physicians entering the profession is strong, the ranks of doctors in the United States aren’t growing fast enough to meet future demand, according to the American Medical Association. That’s why burnout exacerbates workforce shortages and, if it continues, may limit the ability of some patients to access even basic care. A 2021 report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges projects the United States will be short as many as 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034, a higher number than any other single medical specialty.
A survey published last year by The Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving health care, found more than half of the 1,501 responding doctors didn›t have positive feelings about the current or future state of the medical profession. More than 20% said they wanted to retire within a year.
Similarly, in a 2022 AMA survey of 11,000 doctors and other medical professionals, more than half reported feeling burned out and indicated they were experiencing a great deal of stress.
“Everyone in health care feels overworked,” said Gregg Coodley, a primary care physician in Portland, Ore., and author of “Patients in Peril: The Demise of Primary Care in America”
“I’m not saying there aren’t issues for other specialists, too, but in primary care, it’s the worst problem,” he said.
The high level of student debt most medical school graduates carry, combined with salaries more than four times as high as the average, deter many physicians from quitting medicine midcareer. Even primary care doctors, whose salaries are among the lowest of all medical specialties, are paid significantly more than the average American worker. That's why, instead of leaving the profession in their 30s or 40s, doctors often stay in their jobs but retire early.
“We go into medicine to help people, to take care of people, to do good in the world,” said Dr. Crummett, who retired from the Duke University hospital system in 2020 when he turned 65.
Dr. Crummett said he would have enjoyed working until he was 70, if not for the bureaucratic burdens of practicing medicine, including needing to get prior authorization from insurance companies before providing care, navigating cumbersome electronic health record platforms, and logging hours of administrative work outside the exam room.
“I enjoyed seeing patients. I really enjoyed my coworkers,” he said. “The administration was certainly a major factor in burnout.”
Jean Antonucci, a primary care doctor in rural Maine who retired from full-time work at 66, said she, too, would have kept working if not for the hassle of dealing with hospital administrators and insurance companies.
Once, Dr. Antonucci said, she had to call an insurance company – by landline and cellphone simultaneously, with one phone on each ear – to get prior authorization to conduct a CT scan, while her patient in need of an appendectomy waited in pain. The hospital wouldn’t conduct the scan without insurance approval.
“It was just infuriating,” said Dr. Antonucci, who now practices medicine only 1 day a week. “I could have kept working. I just got tired.”
Providers’ collective exhaustion is a crisis kept hidden by design, said Whitney Marvin, a pediatrician who works in the pediatric ICU at the Medical University of South Carolina. She said hospital culture implicitly teaches doctors to tamp down their emotions and to “keep moving.”
“I’m not supposed to be weak, and I’m not supposed to cry, and I’m not supposed to have all these emotions, because then maybe I’m not good enough at my job,” said Dr. Marvin, describing the way doctors have historically thought about their mental health.