COVID-19 Burn Out Causing More Resident Physicians to Unionize, Part 1

Author HeadshotBy George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

This is part one in a blog series focusing on the effects of COVID burnout in healthcare professionals. Be sure to check back for part two.

As you know, residents are new physicians who have recently finished medical school and are spending three to seven years obtaining additional training in a medical specialty. Almost all hospitals practice independently; after all, they are doctors already. And in nearly all hospitals where resident physicians practice, they represent the front line of medical care. On duty all the time, on-call all the time, they are usually the first medical professional to see a new patient who can make a diagnosis and order tests or medications. In addition, resident physicians are generally the first to examine, diagnose, and treat a patient.

In most hospitals, in the past, residents were treated almost as indentured servants, required to work long hours without sleep, pull back-to-back shifts, and remain on call for extensive periods. This was considered a right of passage for resident physicians; a “baptism of fire.” If they couldn’t hack it, they did not deserve to be a physician in the specialty.

More than 80 Hours per Week-a Routine Occurrence.

However, recently (let’s say in the last decade or so), it has been recognized that overworked health professionals cannot provide optimum, safe patient care. This led such organizations as the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which accredits residency programs in the U.S., to require that such programs and hospitals that residents work in must limit the resident physician’s work hours to no more than 80 (yes, 80) hours per week. It got so bad that at least one state, New York, passed a law stating that it was illegal for resident physicians to work more than 80 hours per week.

However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were hospitals and residency programs that would require their residents to work more than 80 hours a week and to turn in false time sheets showing they had worked fewer. We have had many reports that such programs even meet with their residents before an ACGME inspection (or survey) and tell them they must lie to the investigators (or surveyors) and falsely state they did not work more than 80 hours.

COVID-19 Comes on the Scene.

However, in a real crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, where patients are coming into hospitals dying right and left, it must be acknowledged that resident physicians and other hospital staff will be working above and beyond the maximum, no matter what. The long hours, the lack of relief, the stress of losing patients, and the stress of exposure to a potentially deadly disease have taken their toll on many resident physicians. Those who have contracted the virus and had to rush their recovery and recuperation to get back to work have, perhaps, suffered the most.

Residents Banding Together to Unionize.

Many resident physicians are now banding together to demand higher wages, better benefits, and working conditions due mainly to the “burnout” they experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. They join nurses, medical assistants, and other health care workers who are unionizing and threatening to strike. In addition, staffing shortages, the rising cost of living, and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID vaccines have pushed them to their limits.

In some places, New York being a familiar example, resident physicians already had unions representing them in many areas. Now, this is expanding.

Check back soon to read part two of this blog series.

Contact Experienced Health Law Attorneys Representing Residents, Fellows, and Medical Students.

The Health Law Firm routinely represents resident physicians, fellows, and students, including medical students, dental students, nursing students, pharmacy students, and other healthcare professional students, who have legal problems with their schools or programs. We also represent students, residents, and fellows in investigations, academic probation and suspensions, disciplinary hearings, clinical competence committee (CCC) hearings, and appeals of adverse actions taken against them. The Health Law Firm’s attorneys include those board-certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law and licensed health professionals who are also attorneys.

To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free (888) 331-6620 and visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.

Sources:

Weiner, Stacey. “Thousands of medical residents are unionizing. Here’s what that means for doctors, hospitals, and the patients they serve.” AAMC News. (June 7, 2022). Web.

Kwon, Sarah. “Burned out by COVID and 80-hour workweeks, resident physicians unionize.” Kaiser Health News. (May 27, 2022). Web.

Murphy, Brenden. “Why more resident physicians are looking to unionize.” AMA. (June 28, 2022). Web.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law, is an attorney with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.

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