Primary care physician burnout raging across the US and other high-income countries, Commonwealth Fund finds

Primary care physician burnout is rampant across the U.S. and nine other high-income countries and will likely lead to a severe provider shortage in the next several years, according to a newly released survey from the Commonwealth Fund.

"The survey findings … confirm what many feared to be true: The pandemic is taking an alarming toll on the well-being of our primary care workforce," David Blumenthal, M.D., president of the Commonwealth Fund, said this week during a press briefing.

The industry needs additional government and industry assistance to help head off a critical shortage of primary care physicians, according to the organization.

Across an international sample of more than 9,500 interviews, the group found that primary care physicians younger than 55 more often reported burnout or emotional distress than their older peers in most countries.

The younger physicians were also more likely to say they sought out professional help for their mental health needs, although that group was relatively small across both camps. Those who had experienced burnout or other mental health issues were also more likely to report delivering lower-quality care compared to their performance prior to the pandemic.

Of particular concern to the group were findings that across the 10 countries, anywhere from 31% to 67% of the 55-and-older physicians said they intended to stop seeing patients within the next three years, limiting an already strained workforce to the younger and more stressed clinicians.

“For decades, we have known the U.S. and many other countries have faced a shortage of primary care physicians, and these latest findings suggest that without interventions this shortage may soon reach record levels,” Blumenthal said.

Specifically in the U.S., 65% of respondents said their workload increased since the pandemic.

Comparing the older and younger physician groups, respectively: 54% and 63% said they had stressful jobs; 46% and 61% indicated emotional distress since the start of the pandemic; 39% and 50% reported burnout; and 6% and 16% said they sought professional mental health help. Additionally, 45% of physicians older than 55 and 14% of physicians in the younger age group said they intended to stop seeing patients within the next three years.

Blumenthal and Munira Z. Gunja, senior researcher for international health policy and practice innovations for the Commonwealth Fund, highlighted the need for additional primary care investments.

In the U.S., that could mean increasing access to mental care services to improve physicians’ well-being, attracting more medical students by adopting loan forgiveness or increasing primary care reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, Gunja said.

“Other countries have made investments to combat this problem—for example, Australia has committed $750 million towards improving primary care through its strengthening primary care taskforce,” she told reporters during the briefing. “Likewise in the U.S., investing in primary care and the well-being of physicians can likely go a long way.”

The 2022 Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey of Primary Care Physicians was fielded by survey research firm SSRS and contracts from February to September 2022. Per-country sample sizes ranged from 321 to 2,092 people while response rates ranged from 6% to 40%, with final data weighted to match each country’s geographic and demographic benchmarks.

The group’s latest findings fall in line with other healthcare workforce reports from the past year or so. A Bain and Company survey published in October, for instance, found that roughly 1 in 4 U.S. clinicians were considering leaving healthcare due in large part to burnout. This pending exodus would come after more than 330,000 clinicians already retired or stepped away from the sector in 2021.