One in Five Doctors With Long COVID Can No Longer Work: Survey

Claire Sibonney

August 31, 2023

Editor's note: Find the latest long COVID news and guidance in Medscape's Long COVID Resource Center.

Crippling symptoms, lost careers, and eroded incomes: This is the harsh reality for doctors suffering with long COVID, according to the first major survey of physicians with the condition.

The survey, conducted by the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Long COVID Doctors for Action support group, sheds light on the lingering effects of long COVID on more than 600 chronically ill and disabled doctors with the condition. It also spotlights what they describe as a lack of medical and financial support from their government and employers at the National Health Service (NHS).

"We feel betrayed and abandoned," said Kelly Fearnley, MBChB, chair and co-founder of Long COVID Doctors for Action. "At a time of national crisis, when healthcare workers were asked to step up, we did. When the nation needed us, we stepped up. We put our lives on the line. We put our families' lives on the line. And now that we are injured after knowingly being unprotected and deliberately and repeatedly exposed to a level-three biohazard, we now find ourselves in this position."

Fearnley fell ill while working in a hospital's COVID ward in November 2020. She is one of an estimated two million people in the UK — including thousands of NHS employees — with long COVID. She hasn't been able to return to work in nearly 3 years.

Long COVID affects more than 65 million people worldwide. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people infected with the virus develop long-term symptoms. In the UK, healthcare and social care workers are seven times more likely to have had severe COVID-19 than other types of employees.

Doctors responding to the BMA survey reported a wide range of long COVID symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, muscular pain, nerve damage, joint pain, and respiratory problems.

Among the survey's key findings, 60% of doctors said long COVID has affected their ability to carry out day-to-day tasks on a regular basis. Almost 1 in 5 (18%) said they were no longer able to work, while fewer than 1 in 3 (31%) were working full time. This compares to more than half (57%) of respondents working full time before the onset of their COVID illness — a decline of 46%.

Nearly half (48%) of respondents said they have experienced some form of loss of earnings as a result of long COVID, and almost half of the doctors were never referred to an NHS long COVID clinic. The survey included the following first-person accounts from doctors living with the condition.

  • One doctor said: "I nearly lost my life, my home, my partner and my career. I have received little support to help keep these. The impact on my mental health nearly cost [me] my life again."

  • A senior consulting physician commented: "Life is absolutely miserable. Every day is a struggle. I wake up exhausted, the insomnia and night terrors are horrendous as I live through my worst fears every night. Any activity such as eating meals, washing etc will mean I have to go to bed for a few hours. I am unable to look after myself or my child, exercise or maintain social relationships. I have no financial security. Long COVID has totally destroyed my life."

  • A salaried general practitioner said: "I can no longer work, finances are ruined. I didn't have employment protection so am now unemployed and penniless."

Calls for action from the BMA include the following:

  • Financial support for doctors and healthcare staff with long COVID;

  • The recognition of long COVID as an occupational disease among healthcare workers, along with a definition of the condition that covers all of the debilitating disease's symptoms;

  • Improved access to physical and mental health services to help comprehensive assessment, investigations, and treatment;

  • Greater workplace protection for healthcare staff who risk their lives for others;

  • Better support for long COVID sufferers to return to work safely if they can, including a flexible approach to the use of workplace adjustments.

"One would think, given the circumstances under which we fell ill and current workforce shortages, NHS employers would be eager to do everything to facilitate the return to work of people with long COVID," said Fearnley. "However, NHS employers are legally required to implement only 'reasonable adjustments,' and so things such as extended phased return or adjustments to shift patterns are not always being facilitated. Instead, an increasing number of employers are choosing to terminate contracts."

Raymond Agius, the BMA's occupational medicine committee co-chair, also put the blame on inadequate safety measures for doctors. Those inadequte measures persist to this day, inasmuch as UK hospitals have dropped masking requirements.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors were left exposed and unprotected at work," he said in a BMA press release. "They often did not have access to the right PPE.... Too many risk assessments of workplaces and especially of vulnerable doctors were not undertaken."

A small minority of doctors who were surveyed said they had access to respiratory protective equipment (RPE) about the time they contracted COVID-19. Only 11% had access to an FFP2 respirator (the equivalent of an N95 mask); 16% had an FFP3 respirator (the equivalent of an N99 mask).

To date, the British government hasn't issued much of a response to the survey, saying only that it has invested more than ₤50 million to better understand long COVID.

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