Working while sick: Why doctors don’t stay home when ill


Before the pandemic, physicians came to work sick, as people do in many other professions. The reasons are likely as varied as, “you weren’t feeling bad enough to miss work,” “you couldn’t afford to miss pay,” “you had too many patients to see,” or “too much work to do.”

In Medscape’s Employed Physicians Report: Loving the Focus, Hating the Bureaucracy, 61% of physicians reported that they sometimes or often come to work sick. Only 2% of respondents said they never come to work unwell.

Medscape wanted to know more about how often you call in sick, how often you come to work feeling unwell, what symptoms you have, and the dogma of your workplace culture regarding sick days. Not to mention the brutal ethos that starts in medical school, in which calling in sick shows weakness or is unacceptable.

So, we polled 2,347 physicians in the United States and abroad and asked them about their sniffling, sneezing, cold, flu, and fever symptoms, and, of course, COVID. Results were split about 50-50 among male and female physicians. The poll ran from Sept. 28 through Oct. 11.

Coming to work sick

It’s no surprise that the majority of physicians who were polled (85%) have come to work sick in 2022. In the last prepandemic year (2019), about 70% came to work feeling sick one to five times, and 13% worked while sick six to ten times.

When asked about the symptoms that they’ve previously come to work with, 48% of U.S. physicians said multiple symptoms. They gave high marks for runny nose, cough, congestion, and sore throat. Only 27% have worked with a fever, 22% have worked with other symptoms, and 7% have worked with both strep throat and COVID.

“My workplace, especially in the COVID years, accommodates persons who honestly do not feel well enough to report. Sooner or later, everyone covers for someone else who has to be out,” says Kenneth Abbott, MD, an oncologist in Maryland.

The culture of working while sick

Why doctors come to work when they’re sick is complicated. The overwhelming majority of U.S. respondents cited professional obligations; 73% noted that they feel a professional obligation to their patients, and 72% feel a professional obligation to their co-workers. Half of the polled U.S. physicians said they didn’t feel bad enough to stay home, while 48% said they had too much work to do to stay home.

Some 45% said the expectation at their workplace is to come to work unless seriously ill; 43% had too many patients to see; and 18% didn’t think they were contagious when they headed to work sick. Unfortunately, 15% chose to work while sick because otherwise they would lose pay.

In light of these responses, it’s not surprising that 93% reported they’d seen other medical professionals working when sick.

“My schedule is almost always booked weeks in advance. If someone misses or has to cancel their appointment, they typically have 2-4 weeks to wait to get back in. If I was sick and a full day of patients (or God forbid more than a day) had to be canceled because I called in, it’s so much more work when I return,” says Caitlin Briggs, MD, a psychiatrist in Lexington, Ky.


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