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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a growing number of doctors to retire early or quit the profession due to financial issues as well as concerns over their own personal health. FG Trade / Getty Images
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in a number of doctors retiring early due to financial issues and personal health concerns.
  • The problem is particularly acute in the primary care field, which already faces a shortage of physicians.
  • Experts say if your doctor is retiring, you can ask them for a recommendation on a new physician. You can also check your insurance plan network and local medical group.

‪“It is so hard to stop doing something I love, and even harder to say good-bye to all of you.”

‪That’s the opening line of a letter that Dr. James T. Hay wrote to his Southern California patients earlier this year.

‪Forty-two years ago, Hay opened the North Coast Family Medical Group in Encinitas, California. He’s been active in a number of professional organizations, including being a past president of the California Medical Association.

‪In his letter, Hay wrote that he had a few health challenges but was well now. He said it made him realize that “our good health is everything but is not guaranteed.”

He announced that the other doctors in his practice would stay on, but he would retire at the end of June.

‪”The COVID-19 crisis made this all even more apparent, knowing of course that every day is precious, and thus led to this more abrupt departure than I had planned,” Hay wrote.

‪‪Hay is not alone.

The stresses of the pandemic are causing some doctors to retire early. Others are closing their practices or consolidating them with large medical groups because of financial pressures.

‪A recent survey by the California Medical Association (CMA) found that 87 percent of doctors are worried about their financial health. Overall, their revenues are down by a third. A quarter of the respondents said their revenue is down by 50 percent.

‪Meanwhile, their costs are up some 14 percent because of having to acquire personal protective equipment, new disinfection protocols, and telehealth technology to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

‪CMA officials say they’re worried about those trends and are considering asking state and federal policymakers to intervene.

‪Other physicians are facing similar dilemmas.

A study conducted in July by the nonprofit Physicians Foundation also found doctors leaving their practices because of the pandemic.

‪Of the more than 3,500 doctors surveyed, 8 percent said they had already closed their offices. Nearly half have a reduced staff, and 72 percent had reduced income.

In addition to money pressures, others were retiring because their health, age, or medical conditions put them at risk.

‪“It’s had a pretty profound impact on both doctors and their practices. It created financial, emotional, and practical stresses,” said Dr. Russell Libby, a board member of the Physicians Foundation and a primary care pediatric practitioner in Virginia.

‪“Almost all of them have had to change or reduce their hours. Many patients are too afraid to come back,” Libby told Healthline.

‪Many of the doctors surveyed said they were hopeful they could stay open.

They point to the federal Paycheck Protection Program that’s helping keep them afloat for now.

‪“Then you have a whole cadre of docs who are in that age group that would be very high risk. With chronic medical conditions, they could catch COVID-19 and have very complicated and unfortunate outcomes,” Libby said.

‪”When you look at the age of physicians, probably 40 percent of them will be 65 or older in the next 19 years,” he added.

‪This exodus comes on top of a profession already facing shortages, especially among primary care physicians.

A 2015 study cites multiple factors.

Among them are the increased number of people looking for a primary care doctor after the Affordable Care Act became viable, an aging population that requires more care, and more medical students choosing specialties rather than primary care.

‪The study predicted there could be a shortage of 33,000 primary care physicians by 2035.

‪“You can’t see the impact right away, but I think if we look 3 or 4 years down the line, we will find that our primary care shortage is worse because of the pandemic,” said Dr. Yalda Jabbarpour, a family physician in Washington, D.C., as well as the medical director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

‪“I think in a way this pandemic has really highlighted the importance of primary care. Not just being the quarterback of the patient’s team, but also making sure there that continuity of care is available for the patients,” she told Healthline.

‪“I have so many new patients every time I go to clinic. A lot of this is because they are scared and don’t want to go to urgent care or the emergency room anymore. They’re afraid to go into those spaces because of COVID-19, and they really want to have a primary care physician who can be there for them just in case something happens.

‪“Sometimes it makes it hard for my current patients to get in contact with me. So I find myself doing a lot of night and weekend work because in the virtual environment, there are fewer barriers to getting care.

‪“I’ve heard this from a lot of physicians. We’re just working way, way more. So I worry about physician burnout. We all want to help, and we’re helping as much as we can. But we need to get more physicians in the pipeline to get rid of some of these shortages,” Jabbarpour said.

‪A coalition of groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, has already launched an initiative called “25 X 2030.”

The goal is getting 25 percent of medical school students to choose family medicine as their specialty by the year 2030. It includes matching interested students with mentors and role models.

‪The pandemic is apparently already prompting a surge in students enrolling in public health programs.

The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health reports a 20 percent increase in applications to master’s in public health programs for the current academic year.

At Brown University, its small public health master’s program spiked 75 percent. The university had to extend its application deadline by a month after demand increased as the pandemic hit its stride in the spring.

‪If your doctor has retired or closed their practice, here are a few recommendations on how to find another one.

‪Experts say check your insurance plan. If you have an HMO or a PPO, you’ll have a list of doctors in your network. You can look to see who is taking new patients.

‪Jabbarpour said another good way is word of mouth. Ask your friends and family for suggestions.

She added that if your doctor is retiring, see whether they have physician recommendations.

And if you live in an area that has large health systems, go to their website to see whether they have new physicians or family practice clinics that may be accepting new patients.

‪Libby suggested that you might want to look for a physician who has expanded their practice to use telehealth. During a virtual visit, you can get an idea whether the doctor is a good fit for you.

‪“Telemedicine means the physician is bringing care to you, rather than you having to take yourself for care to the physician. It’s on your terms, not theirs,” he said.

‪“It may be the silver lining in all this, [that] the pandemic pushed physicians and their practice methods into the 21st century,” he added.