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Physician Work Hours Significantly Declined Since Start of COVID-19

Published on Thursday, June 24, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an existing, gradual decline in physician work hours, according to a new study in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) analyzed Current Population Survey (CPS) basic monthly data from January 2019 to December 2020 to examine changes in physician work hours and activities from before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The data set included 8,853 observations of 2,563 unique physicians.

The study showed that mean weekly hours worked per week by physician was 50.8 in January 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. By March 2020 though, those hours started to decline (49.2 hours per week) and hit a low in May 2020 at 47.5 hours per week.

Physician work hours fluctuated throughout the pandemic, stabilizing during the summer of 2020 and hitting another low in November when many states saw a second surge of COVID-19.

By December 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved emergency use authorizations for two COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccine distribution hit its stride in early 2021 with another vaccine receiving an emergency use authorization from FDA.

However, physician work hours were still low compared to the pre-pandemic period, the study found. Mean weekly hours in December 2020 were 47.8, researchers said. That equated to an approximate 6 percent decrease compared to January 2019, they reported.

The most recent numbers point to a trend: physicians are gradually working fewer hours. Additionally, fewer physicians are working full time.

The study found that the percentage of physicians reporting full-time work status fell from 84.17 percent before COVID-19 to 80.65 percent during the pandemic. Physicians claiming to “still have the same activities” at work also declined, from 83.90 percent to 78.00 percent during the period.

Notably, the percentage of physicians with preschool-age children among full-time, female physicians decreased from 17.98 percent to 14.10 percent. However, the percentage did not significantly change among male physicians, researchers reported.

They attributed the observed changes in physician work hours during the pandemic to changes in healthcare utilization throughout 2020, as well as the increased flexibilities of pandemic-related legislation.

Meanwhile, the significant different in physician work hours among some female physicians “may suggest a disproportionate uptake of childcare responsibilities among female physicians,” they wrote in the study.

The study’s findings are troubling for an industry with more demand than supply. AAMC recently estimated that the physician shortage to reach up to about 124,000 doctors by 2034. The shortage is driven by a rapidly increasing aging population who require more healthcare services and include many physicians themselves.

Healthcare worker fatalities during the pandemic and pandemic-induced physician burnout will also likely impact the supply of future physicians, AAMC stated.

“Future studies analyzing physician-specific data are needed to fully examine the impact of the pandemic on the physician workforce,” researchers wrote in the study.

(Source: Xtelligent Healthcare Media)