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Pandemic-inspired idealism is prompting careers in health care. Caveat emptor

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(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

STAT, May 2021

Health care workers facing notoriously difficult work lives and high levels of burnout were some of the brightest stars in the U.S. over the past year. Stories about how they went above and beyond to deliver care to their patients during the Covid-19 pandemic — providing drive-thru and virtual primary care; triaging patients in parking lots and tents; reusing personal protective equipment while working to save lives in emergency rooms and intensive care units — made lasting impressions on Americans of all ages.

Are such stories nudging more young people to choose careers as health care professionals? Maybe.

Applications for 2021 admissions to U.S. medical schools increased 17% over last year, a larger increase than in previous years. Applications to nursing programs also increased. Many individuals who want to become doctors or nurses are idealistic. Post-pandemic careers as health professionals may blunt that idealism, or even extinguish it.

Although much of what I describe here affects nurses and other health care professionals, I’ll focus on physicians. That’s because I study doctors. I have also worked alongside them, written books and research articles about them, know a lot of them as colleagues, and understand them well. Medicine as a profession continues to suffer from high rates of burnout, career regretsuicide, and substance use disorder. As might be expected, physician burnout only got worse during the pandemic year of 2020, and increases in many of these other negative outcomes will likely follow suit. While acts of physician heroism are real, the fact remains that high numbers of doctors find themselves never having enough support, resources, or control to do their jobs in ways that leave them satisfied, energized, or happy.

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