A higher percentage of family physicians quit during the early months of the pandemic than the average yearly percentage that did in the prior decade, according to data from Canada.
The researchers conducted two analyses of billing claims data for family physicians practicing in Ontario. They examined data for a period from 2010 to 2019 – before the onset of the pandemic – and from 2019 through 2020. The findings were published in Annals of Family Medicine.
Overall, the proportion of family physicians who stopped working rose from an average of 1.6% each year for the period between 2010 and 2019 to 3% in the period from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic data set included 12,247 physicians in Ontario. Of these, 385 (3.1%) reported no billings in the first 6 months of the pandemic.
Compared with family physicians billing for work during the pandemic, those reporting no billings were significantly more likely to be 75 years or older (13.0% vs. 3.4%), to have patient panels of less than 500 patients (40.0% vs. 25.8%), and to be eligible for fee-for-service reimbursement (37.7% vs. 24.9%; P less than .001 for all). The family physicians who reported no billing early in the pandemic also had fewer billing days in the previous year (mean of 73 days vs. 101 days, P less than .001).
In a regression analysis, the absolute increase in the percentage of family physicians who stopped working was 0.3% per year from 2010 to 2019, but rose to 1.2% between 2019 and 2020.
Challenges to family physicians in Ontario in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic included reduced revenue, inability to keep offices fully staffed, and problems obtaining enough personal protective equipment. Such challenges may have prompted some family physicians to stop working prematurely, but more research is needed in other settings, wrote study author Tara Kiran, MD, of the University of Toronto, and colleagues.
“There were a lot of stories and suggestions that more family physicians were choosing to retire due to COVID,” Michael Green, MD, a coauthor of the paper, said in an interview. “Given the preexisting shortages we thought it would be important to see if this was true, and how big of an issue it was,” he said.
Although the absolute number of primary care physicians who stopped working is small, the implications are large given the ongoing shortage of family physicians in Canada, the researchers wrote.
The characteristics of physicians stopping work, such as older age and smaller practice size, were consistent with that of physicians preparing for retirement, the researchers noted. In addition, 56% of the family physicians who stopped working during the pandemic practiced in a patient enrollment model, in which patients are enrolled and between 15% and 70% of payment is based on age and sex. In this study, approximately 80% of physicians worked in this model. The remaining 20% operated in independent, fee-for-service practices.
“Although we cannot directly attribute causation, we hypothesize that some family physicians accelerated their retirement plans because of the pandemic,” the researchers noted. They proposed that possible reasons include health concerns, increased costs of infection prevention and control, reduced revenue from office visits, and burnout. The current study did not examine these issues.
Additional studies are needed to understand the impact on population health, the researchers concluded, but they estimated that the number of family physicians who stopped work during the pandemic would have provided care for approximately 170,000 patients.
The study findings reflect a genuine turnover by family physicians, vs. a departure from family practice to a fellowship and practice in another specialty, Dr. Green said. “We looked at physician billings to determine who stopped practicing, so we report only on those who stopped billing the Ontario Health Insurance Program altogether,” he explained.
The ongoing pandemic accelerated the issue of an upcoming wave of physician retirements and added to an already large number of people without a family physician, Dr. Green noted.
“We know there will be significant shortages of family physicians if we don’t modernize our ways of delivering primary care,” said Dr. Green. More research is needed on how to support family doctors with teams and administrative supports to allow them to provide high quality care to more patients, he said. Better models to estimate health workforce needs in primary care are needed as well, he added.
In the United States, a physician shortage has been growing since before the pandemic, according to a report published in 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges. In this report, “The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2019 to 2034,” the authors specifically projected a primary care physician shortage of 17,800 to 48,000 by 2034. This projection is in part based on an increase in the percentage of the U.S. population aged 65 years and older, which will increase the demand for care, according to the authors. The report also confirmed that many U.S. physicians are approaching retirement age and that more than two of five active physicians will be 65 years or older within the next 10 years.
However, the authors of this U.S. report acknowledged that the impact of the pandemic on existing primary care shortages remains unclear.
“There are still many unknowns about the direct short-term and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the physician workforce, and it may be several years before those impacts are clearly understood,” they said in the executive summary of their report.
Alison N. Huffstetler, MD, a coauthor of a recent report that tried to identify the active primary care workforce in Virginia, said, “We know from other research that there are not enough primary care doctors, right now, to do the work that needs to be done – some citations have noted it would take a primary care doc over 20 hours a day just to provide preventive care.
“As our population continues to age, live longer, and need more complex care management, we must ensure we have an accountable, accessible, and knowledgeable primary care network to care for our communities,” she said.