More internal medicine, family practice doctors left the workforce in past 2 years than other specialties, report finds

More than 145,200 clinicians exited the healthcare workforce in 2021 and 2022 with physicians—in particular internal medicine and family practice doctors—at the head of the line, according to a newly updated industry report from Definitive Healthcare.

The past two calendar years saw about 71,300 physicians leave the profession, or nearly 7% of the country’s total active physician workforce. They cited a range of reasons for their departure such as concerns of COVID-19 infection, “untenable” hours, emotional toll and stress, per the report from the healthcare data intelligence company.

Within specific specialties, about 8,700 internal medicine and 7,800 family practice doctors opted to leave the field, followed most closely by nearly 6,000 clinical psychology and 5,100 psychiatry specialists. Providers in these fields were more frequently on the front lines of COVID-19, Definitive wrote, and so were among those most impacted by pandemic pressures.

Other specialty-specific departures of note were the 3,500 optometry, 2,900 anesthesiology and 2,500 obstetrics/gynecology providers who Definitive speculated could be the result of limited face-to-face care during pandemic years.

“This contributed to billions of dollars in lost revenue for healthcare practices of all fields, but anesthesiology and optometry may have faced more difficulty recouping costs or adapting due to the complex technologies involved or physical contact needed to examine the patient,” the company wrote in the report. “To compensate, many practices resorted to furloughing employees or shuttering their doors—sometimes for good.”

Provider demographics could also play a role in workforce availability during the coming years, Definitive wrote. While data from the Association of American Medical Colleges show that almost 45% of doctors are above 55 years of age, the average adult medicine and general practice provider is 59 years old, while those practicing psychology and adolescent medicine are 58 years old on average, the company wrote.

“While it may take years for many providers to retire from the workforce, healthcare providers should be actively taking steps to address this right now,” Definitive wrote.

Beyond the physician population, 2021 and 2022 also had about 34,800 nurse practitioners, 15,300 physical therapists, 13,700 physician assistants and 10,000 licensed clinical social workers leave the workforce. The former of these often left for other opportunities including work as a travel nurse, though Definitive noted that demand for those positions has declined considerably.

“While it may be too early to speculate if demand for travel nurses will rise once again, it’s clear that the role of a nurse—and how much organizations are willing to pay for their expertise—is in flux,” Definitive wrote in the report.

Together, the provider departures are contributing to “critical” staffing shortages for hospitals and other provider organizations, particularly in rural areas, the company wrote. In addition to weighing down hospital finances, the issue is likely taking a toll on patient care, with Definitive citing a 2022 report that found a third of physicians blame staffing shortages for medical errors.  

“Cognitive failure can be a result of stress, a lack of expertise to adequately deliver care, a heavy patient load or poor mental health, among other factors,” the group wrote. “When cognitive failure is high, healthcare workers may be more likely to find shortcuts in safety procedures, insufficiently monitor patients after a procedure or suffer injuries from physical hazards.”

Definitive built the report’s estimates using its data intelligence products and the Atlas All-Payor Claims product. The former combines data pulled from the Medicare Cost Report, NPI registry, Physician Compare, all-payor claims and other proprietary research, according to the company. In total, the company’s data follow more than 2.5 million providers.

Of note, the company’s latest workforce departure estimates are substantially lower than those reported in previous iterations of the report. The version released in fall 2022, for instance, estimated nearly 334,000 total provider departures during 2021.

Definitive recommended healthcare organizations invest in technologies like telehealth, adopt programs combating burnout and support “fundamental changes” to graduate medical education programs in order to head off current and future staffing shortages.