The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally affected every single North Carolinian, whether through the loss of a loved one, jobs disappearing, or getting sick themselves. The health and well-being of medical professionals in our community have also taken a significant toll, yet their struggle has gone unnoticed as they cared for patients on the frontlines at the height of the pandemic.
The past 18 months have begun to shed light on the burnout doctors, nurses, and others in the medical community tend to face. Through COVID, it was these individuals who risked their lives to save the lives of others, working long hours in some of the most challenging situations.
It is no wonder many medical professionals are struggling with the trauma and loss they experienced at their jobs and many still do. The tragic death of Dr. Lorna Breen underscores the difficult and sometimes fatal consequences that can occur when our caregivers’ health struggles largely go unnoticed.
This burnout and other factors have led to a shortage of doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics across the country. As Americans grow older — including those in the medical community — there will be fewer medical professionals and more patients, if we don’t take immediate action to address the shortage of medical expertise. It is because of pandemic-related concerns and exhaustion that many doctors and nurses may look to further cut back their hours.
The pandemic didn’t cause a shortage of our doctors and nurses, it only exacerbated an existing problem in this country. In 2018 North Carolina had a physician burnout rate of 41 percent—an alarming figure and yet one of the lowest rates in the country. Furthermore, North Carolina ranks 11th in the country when it comes to the number of health professional shortage areas (HPSAs), with 189. That leaves many North Carolinians vulnerable when it comes to healthcare accessibility.
New research shows this shortage is likely to get worse. A recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects that by 2034, there will be a shortage of as many as 48,000 primary care physicians, and a shortage of nearly 80,000 physicians. More must be done to ensure that we reverse this trend before a deficit of medical professionals puts lives at risk.
COVID brought to the surface many inequalities that persist in our healthcare system, including the large number of rural, lower-income, and generally underserved communities that need more robust healthcare infrastructure to stay healthy.
Luckily, Congress has the ability to bolster the number of medical professionals in several ways and in doing so, can ensure that all North Carolinians are able to find a doctor when they need one.
Physician training programs are the biggest hurdle to address the shortage. Medical students need at least one year of graduate medical education (GME) or a residency before being granted a license to practice. Congress is considering the Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act, which would bring another 3,500 new doctors per year into the medical community. Additional legislation would also help turn the tide on doctor shortages and ensure there is an adequate number of medical professionals to meet patient demands.
President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes money to support increasing the number of medical professionals through more GME and other incentives. These initiatives taken together would be immensely helpful for every North Carolinian and every American.
While we won’t solve this deficit overnight, Congress must take steps to address health care professional burnout to safeguard the health of our medical professionals and guarantee all North Carolinians will have access to a doctor when they’re in need of care.