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The death of doctors: Getting more insight into physician fatalities in the pandemic

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More than 1 million Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus since early 2020. A new analysis sheds more light on the physicians who have died.

Three years after the arrival of the coronavirus, researchers say it’s still not entirely clear how many doctors have perished in the pandemic.

More than 1 million Americans have died in the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a new analysis sheds a bit more light on the toll on physicians in the first half of the pandemic.

Researchers say 4,511 doctors died between March 2020 and December 2021, according to a research letter published Feb. 6 in Jama Internal Medicine. The researchers said that reflects 622 more deaths than would have been expected in that time. About two-thirds of the doctors (65.3%) were male and 34.7% were female.

The analysis doesn’t specifically state that all of those unexpected deaths were caused by COVID-19, but the fatality rate dropped substantially after the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.

The researchers said that ensuring the health and well-being of physicians is critical in managing a public health crisis.

“Preventing excess deaths among physicians is an important component of mitigating excess deaths in the general population,” the authors wrote.

The highest number of excess physician deaths in a month occurred in December 2020, the researchers wrote. After April 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, there were no excess deaths among physicians, the authors wrote. Researchers from Stanford University and the University of Southern California conducted the analysis using data from the American Medical Association.

Generally, the fatality rate among physicians remained lower than the American population.

However, active physicians, including those doctors providing direct patient care, had a lower mortality rate than nonactive physicians, the study found.

“The findings suggest that personal protective equipment use, vaccine requirements, infection prevention protocols, adequate staffing, and other workplace-based protective measures were effective in preventing excess mortality,” the researchers wrote.

The study also found that older active doctors had a higher mortality risk than younger physicians.

“Increased excess deaths among older active physicians providing direct patient care suggest that workplace policies should prioritize mitigating risk in this group,” the authors wrote.

The researchers noted some potential limitations in their analysis, including the retirement of some physicians early in the pandemic. It’s possible that the analysis missed some doctors who died, they said. Nearly one in five healthcare workers left their jobs in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an October 2021 report by Morning Consult.

More than 3,600 healthcare workers died during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an exhaustive report by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News. The report, published in April 2021, also called on the Biden administration to more aggressively track the deaths of healthcare workers.

Nurses accounted for roughly one in three COVID-19 deaths (32%) in the pandemic’s first year, according to the Guardian/KHN report. One in five (20%) of the deaths occurred among healthcare support staff, while 17% of those who died were doctors.

The pandemic has also taken a steep toll on the mental health of physicians and nurses. Last year, President Biden signed a law directing more resources to help address the mental health needs of healthcare workers.

More than half of all doctors are suffering burnout, but few are seeking assistance for their mental health needs, a recent Medscape survey found.


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