The Great Resignation Among Healthcare Providers Comes as No Surprise

Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS


January 26, 2022

By now, I'm sure you've heard of "the Great Resignation." It refers to the high numbers of employees that have chosen to leave their jobs during the COVID pandemic, and it comes as no surprise that healthcare workers are leading the charge.

Our medical system was broken long before SARS-CoV-2 ever breached our borders, and this was made even more clear as the pandemic brought on worsening provider burnout, significant staffing shortages, brutally long hours, cuts in compensation, and targeted threats from patients and anti-vaxxers. If you haven't yet discovered the article Why Health-Care Workers Are Quitting in Droves by Ed Yong, recently published in The Atlantic, you should read it now. I certainly recognized the sentiments of the providers who were featured in the article, and many of Yong's words have stuck with me: "The United States uses the rod of Asclepius — a snake entwined around a staff — as a symbol of medicine. But the pandemic suggests that the more fitting symbol might be the Ouroboros, a snake devouring its own tail."

I'm an ID provider who knows the symptoms of burnout firsthand, and after nearly a year of deliberation, I gave notice at my permanent position just weeks before the mention of COVID first made the news. My case wasn't unique; I was simply overwhelmed and burdened by continually having to validate my worth to administrators and colleagues, by increasing difficulty in achieving standard of care for my patients within dysfunctional multidisciplinary teams, by ever-broadening responsibilities given to ID providers, by low compensation models for my specialty, by more demanding and less respectful patients, and by a lack of joy at a job that was once rewarding. I can't imagine what state I'd be in now if I'd chosen to remain at that job through the entirety of the pandemic.

Jackson Physician Search, in partnership with Medical Group Management Association, recently conducted a Physician Recruitment, Engagement, Retention, and Succession Planning survey with physicians and medical administrators; the survey results are now available in a downloadable whitepaper via the survey link (after providing contact information), if you're interested.

Over the past year, nearly half of the physician survey respondents considered leaving their positions to work for a new employer, while 43% said they were already considering early retirement. Though there were a wide range of responses citing reasons for dissatisfaction, many physicians said that opportunities to influence patient care diminished while paperwork and administrative burdens worsened. Many reported a loss in meaning or purpose in their work, along with fears of instability and overwork, less than adequate compensation, and lack of recognition. And the survey revealed a clear disconnect between physicians and administrators: 62% of physicians felt that their burnout was caused (either in part or totally) by their employer, while more than half of the administrators felt that burnout was caused by the "nature of being a physician."

While many providers who quit during "the Great Resignation" abandoned healthcare completely, I elected to try locum tenens as a bridge to early retirement. I have worked continuously through the pandemic, but my role as a traveling ID consultant is now focused entirely on patient care, mostly inpatients. I occasionally have teaching responsibilities for medical students and residents, which has been more enjoyable with increased time available for it. I have no administrative roles, expected outpatient clinics, committee meetings, or task force commitments. I have turned down assignments that suggest the workload may be more than I can handle, and I can negotiate for overtime pay if I work past 5 PM.

Not everything about locum tenens is ideal, of course. Working at a hospital just outside of Washington, DC, during the first wave of the pandemic was one of the most challenging and stressful clinical experiences of my career. Travel over the past 2 years has been unpredictable and inefficient. Dealing with the paperwork required by multiple state licenses and hospitals has been unpleasant. And no, I don't make more money as a locums provider; infectious diseases is still the lowest-paid specialty, no matter how you practice it.

Fortunately, though, transitioning to locums gave me what I needed: a chance to recover from burnout, control in choosing work assignments that match my preferences and skills, and relief from administrative burdens that previously interrupted patient care. I still might retire from medicine early, but thankfully, I don't feel forced to do it today.

Comments to this blog post are welcomed and encouraged. If you have an infectious disease topic you'd be interested in reading about here, please don't hesitate to mention it.

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube

About Dr Roni Devlin
Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS, is an infectious diseases physician currently residing in the Midwest. She is the author of several scholarly papers and two books on influenza. With a longstanding interest in reading and writing beyond the world of medicine, she has also owned an independent bookstore, founded a literary nonprofit, and published articles and book reviews for various online and print publications. You can reach her via LinkedIn.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.