An estimated 333,942 healthcare providers dropped out of the workforce in 2021, many of whom departed due to retirement, burnout and other stressors related to the pandemic, according to new data.
As a profession, physicians lost the most members, with 117,000 individuals leaving their roles last year, followed by nurse practitioners, which lost 53,295 members and physician assistants, with 22,704 positions vacated, according to a report published Thursday by Definitive Healthcare.
The toll COVID-19 has taken on the country’s aging physician population is especially concerning as providers in most specialties range in age from an average of 50 to 60 years old, said Todd Bellemare, senior vice president of strategic solutions at Definitive Healthcare, a commercial intelligence company.
“There is the current worry of being able to backfill as physicians retire or move out of the workforce,” Bellemare said. “The ability for people to get into the healthcare profession, how do we make that easier?”
Internal medicine saw the largest exodus out of any physician specialty, losing 15,000 providers in 2021, compared with 13,015 who left family practice and 10,874 in clinical psychology.
Other healthcare professionals who left their roles include physical therapists and licensed clinical social workers.
In addition to working unsustainable hours with fear of infection and the emotional toll of lost colleagues and patients, many healthcare employees reported being less satisfied in their roles because they aren’t able to work at the top of their license, Bellemare said.
“If you're one of the best pulmonologists there is, but 20% of your time is spent doing administrative tasks, then you're going to get burnt out,” he said. “The thing that hospitals, health systems, physician groups, surgery centers, and any type of facility management should be looking at is, ‘How do you hold tight to your people and make them happy?’”
Another pain point is the staffing shortages that hospitals and health systems in rural areas face, often because they don’t have the money or resources to compete with urban health centers that can offer higher salaries, sign-on bonuses and expanded benefits to retain workers or hire traveling nurses and other contract workers, Bellemare said.
Among states, South Carolina is in the most dire straits, with nearly 29% of hospitals experiencing a critical staffing shortage, the report found. Georgia, Vermont, Delaware and Michigan are close behind, with about 20% of hospitals in each state experiencing critical shortages.
In 2020, large hospitals with more than 250 beds spent an average of $11 million on contract labor, versus facilities with 25 beds or fewer spending about $460,000.
Hospitals nationwide spent a total of about $97.3 million on employees and physician salaries in 2020, compared with $82.7 million in 2016, according to data from the October 2021 Medicare Cost Report.