The Labor Struggle of Physicians Worldwide

Brianna Wiles, Staff Writer

Trigger Warning: Mentions of Suicide

The majority of people around the world consider healthcare to be a fundamental right that everyone deserves equal access to. The proof of this is in the numbers: all but 43 countries offer their own form of universal healthcare that allows everyone to receive the care they deserve. Yet the issue of obtaining privatized health insurance is not the only issue in getting proper treatment—healthcare professionals, both locally and abroad, currently find themselves in ethically-difficult situations of being overworked and underpaid for the life-saving care they provide. 

As a county hospital, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (SCVMC) provides care to everyone regardless of their access to insurance or immigration status—factors that often lead to the denial of care at other hospitals. Thus, proper staffing at SCVMC is largely important to keep our community safe. In recent months, physicians at SCVMC have grown to be fed-up with the poor treatment they’ve suffered from working without a contract for over 18 months. This contract would outline terms of a worker’s employment and the responsibilities of their employer. Without the presence of a contract, doctors are vulnerable to the wrongdoings of their management, like being given excessively large caseloads.

Seven full-time surgeons at SCVMC have been responsible for the work of fifteen to seventeen people since April 2021. ”

— Gregg Adams, SCVMC Trauma Surgeon

The lack of medical staffing is a huge issue in all departments of SCVMC, and overworking these medical professionals not only causes the quality of patient care to decline, but their mental health to do so as well. 

This past May, one unnamed doctor at VMC committed suicide in his office. The reality of a workplace being so detrimental to one’s health is absolutely unnecessary, and this individual is not the only one—since then, there’s been another attempted suicide at SCVMC. After the death of their colleague, the Valley Physicians Group, a union representing more than 450 doctors, planned a strike that was to take place in early November. Union chair Dr. Stephen Harris stated that “a strike is a last resort” because of the impact it would have on their patients should they not be providing care during this time, yet the strike would take place with the intention of forcing management to prioritize patient care. Santa Clara County and the Valley Physicians Group have a temporary agreement on a new contract to avoid the strike. 

SCVMC is not the only medical center struggling with understaffing—in the Canadian province of British Columbia, over 110,000 people were on a waiting list for a family physician as of October. Yet more provinces across the country report over 1.5 million individuals struggle with the same issue of not having a regular doctor. Canadian emergency departments are facing incredibly long wait times, as those without a regular physician are forced to go to busy hospitals to receive non-emergent care. 

British Columbia is developing a new plan to pay general practitioners’ salaries based on other factors, including the number of patients a doctor sees and the complexity of a patient’s condition. It will require that medical residents will spend time in family medicine, all with the goal of encouraging a larger number of medical professionals to be able to provide day-to-day care. While these seem like useful ways to grow family medicine, “the key to making family medicine more attractive will be a further shift that will better spread workloads and cut administrative chores.” The plan means well, but the real question is how big the impact will truly be. 

While diverse in their specifics, the lack of staffing in various medical settings is causing large amounts of stress on doctors everywhere. When the management of a medical center does not realize the impact it has on its doctors, it sees no need to make changes, and doctors such as those at our very own VMC are impacted—further affecting our community’s ability to receive care.

Almost 70% of county physicians are prepared to leave their jobs within the next three years. If their management cannot come up with more staffing and cannot understand the troubles their doctors are facing, they’ll lose them altogether—and what will happen next to our community will be devastating.