By the end of this year, it’s estimated that 300 physicians will commit suicide. While depression amongst physicians is not new—a few years back, it was named the second-most suicidal occupation—the level of sheer unhappiness amongst physicians is on the rise.
Simply put, being a doctor has become a miserable and humiliating undertaking. Indeed, many doctors feel that America has declared war on physicians—and both physicians and patients are the losers.
Not surprisingly, many doctors want out. Medical students opt for high-paying specialties so they can retire as quickly as possible. Physician MBA programs—that promise doctors a way into management—are flourishing. The website known as the Drop-Out-Club—which hooks doctors up with jobs at hedge funds and venture capital firms—has a solid following. In fact, physicians are so bummed out that 9 out of 10 doctors would discourage anyone from entering the profession.
It’s hard for anyone outside the profession to understand just how rotten the job has become—and what bad news that is for America’s health care system. Perhaps that’s why author Malcolm Gladwell recently implied that to fix the healthcare crisis, the public needs to understand what it’s like to be a physician. Imagine, for things to get better for patients, they need to empathize with physicians—that’s a tall order in our noxious and decidedly un-empathetic times.
After all, the public sees ophthalmologists and radiologists making out like bandits and wonder why they should feel anything but scorn for such doctors—especially when Americans haven’t gotten a raise in decades. But being a primary care physician is not like being, say, a plastic surgeon—a profession that garners both respect and retirement savings. Given that primary care doctors do the work that no one else is willing to do, being a primary care physician is more like being a janitor—but without the social status or union protections.
Unfortunately, things are only getting worse for most doctors, especially those who still accept health insurance. Just processing the insurance forms costs $58 for every patient encounter, according to Dr. Stephen Schimpff, an internist and former CEO of University of Maryland Medical Center who is writing a book about the crisis in primary care. To make ends meet, physicians have had to increase the number of patients they see. The end result is that the average face-to-face clinic visit lasts about 12 minutes.