Although it is a bit premature to say that we are victorious against COVID-19, the mood is definitely improving where I practice. Patients are becoming happier and less stressed. There are less people yelling at us about masks. The “bad behavior” that we were previously seeing is starting to decrease significantly.
As the dust settles on the past 2 years of chaos, I would like to take a moment to sit back and reflect on the financial effects and the emotional toll that the pandemic has had on doctors. You may have heard some terms thrown around recently to describe many health care workers frustrations. Burn out. Compassion fatigue. Dulled empathy.
I personally know three physician friends of mine who have quit medicine altogether during the pandemic. They are all in their 40s and had plenty of their career ahead of them. One of them went into the pharmaceutical industry. The other two of them attended a coding bootcamp and now work for a technology company.
Emotional Punching Bag
Beyond the death toll and emotional destruction, the worst part of the pandemic for me personally has been becoming an emotional punching bag. I’m talking about becoming someone for patients to vent their frustration and fears to by lashing out verbally, often unintentionally.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned practicing medicine would be me filing a restraining order against a patient. Or would I have never fathomed that I would be receiving death threats for giving out a vaccine, and having patients yell in cuss at me or my staff almost daily during some points during the pandemic.
To be honest, there are quite a few times during the pandemic when I thought about quitting. There were a lot of days when I felt….should I really go into work and be yelled at again and be told how much I suck because we do have the vaccine, or we don’t have the vaccine, or someone came into our office and got too close to them, that we require face masks, we should be waiving all copays to help those individuals who lost their jobs during the pandemic and provide free care. These are just a few of the reasons that we have been yelled at and told we suck because of these reasons as above.
There were a lot of days when I came home, and I thought about changing careers. You can only take so much verbal abuse before you break.
Not all of my patients were bad behaviors, I love that the majority of my patients were wonderful, supportive and amazing during the pandemic. It was the ones who were the maybe 2% of our patients that caused 100% of our problems.
We tried our best to work with these patients, to calm them down. However, we soon shifted to a model of warning and termination for bad behavior.
The Untold Emotional & Financial Implications
At the beginning of the pandemic, I started working extended hours. We offered after our visits for free, helping out as many patients as we could help out. However, as I continue to take more and more verbal abuse, eventually I started whittling down my hours. I went from 10-hour days to 9-hour days to 8-hour days to 7-hour days.
Looking back, I did take a little bit of a financial hit by working fewer hours so that I could keep my emotional strength high. I knew that if I was going to keep working eight or nine hours a day during the pandemic with the verbal abuse I was taking, that I would almost certainly quit medicine within one to two years.
Cutting back on my hours has led to filling my emotional wellness tank but taking a slight hit to my take home pay. Although it is not a major hit, still a financial hit nevertheless. The pandemic has had a huge lasting effect on doctors. Many doctors have scaled back on hours worked or quit all together.
I spent two years missing the days when I would have a simple diabetes follow up. For two years it felt like even the easy diabetes follow up turned into me being deeply listening and mentally counseling my patients for the severe stress and anxiety they were going through.
I would joke with my wife, that I seriously feel more like a therapist and less like an internist.
Don’t take this part the wrong way. I love listening to my patients, I love helping my patients. I can only do so much though. Trying to help someone who is on 12 medications and also be their therapist in a 20-minute visit during the pandemic was impossible.
Add on top of that decreasing pay from some insurance companies, and it feels like a punch in the gut.
Health Care Hero?
For two years I kept getting emails from insurance companies that we were in network with how we were “healthcare heroes.”
At the beginning it made me feel good for some kind of thanks, some kind of acknowledgement. The pandemic then started to really have an effect mentally on most doctors, including myself.
However, that good feeling soon turned to resentment.
If I’m a hero, then why without warning did some of my claims getting denied. Oh, turns out Cigna wants me to submit the claims with a place of service as 11 but BCBS was it as place of service 2 with a 95 modifier. Must have missed all those emails in the flood of “healthcare hero” emails.
Medicare has refused to give any pay increases in 2022 and met recently to only say that there will also be no increase in pay for 2023 despite decades of record inflation. Some thanks for putting my life on the line being a “health care hero.”
Since all private insurances follow Medicare, looks like I won’t be getting any raises there too.
Meanwhile the cost of hiring new employees has gone up, buying supplies has gone up, and there are no tax breaks for small independent practices.
No I Did Not Sign Up For This
I have had some people tell me that I should not complain. That I’m a physician. I signed up for dealing with sick patients.
Being a physician is my profession. A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. I did not sign up to put my life on the line and possibly not come home one day to my wife and kids because some patient lied to me about their symptoms and coughed in my face.
I love what I do. This is the best job, best profession, and best career I could imagine for myself. However, every profession or job has its limits. The pandemic sure did have an effect on this doctor.
I almost reached those limits during the pandemic.
My friends reached their limit during the pandemic and the effect it has on them as doctors and people. They abandoned the profession. We lost some great physicians since my friends were amazing physicians. While I may not know exactly why they felt the way they did to ultimately quit, I feel I got a glimpse of understanding why.
I did not sign up to get yelled at for trying to help people. I did not sign up for getting death threats giving out the vaccine. My staff did not sign up to get verbally abused almost daily for trying to provide amazing and wonderful healthcare to our patients.
Things Headed Back To Normal
In the past several weeks things feel like we are moving towards normal life again. Of course, we are not there yet.
However, patients are talking about traveling, seem much less stressed, and visits feel more like they were pre pandemic. The rude or demeaning behavior that existed during the pandemic seemed to improve significantly since mid-January 2022.
I’m looking forward to getting back to life as normal.
As a result, for now this will be the last emotional implication post for a while, and I will be moving back to the business and practice of medicine. This closes that chapter on a rough 2 years.