The Medical System is at its Tipping Point | Opinion

During any pandemic, it goes without saying that a lot is expected of doctors and medical professionals. This is largely why we all regarded them as heroes over the past two years during our time of pestilence. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is no ordinary pestilence. Rather, it is a hyper-politicized one.

Most people do not trust doctors—even before the pandemic—due to administrative and insurance-related factors. The quality of care in the U.S. health care system has radically deteriorated. When health care workers make it a point to note that their place of work is the "McDonald's of Medicine" and when there's a growing exodus to leave medicine as a whole, all resistance toward vaccinations should worry us. In a system that is already so weakened, there are simply too many negative factors to warrant optimism for the future of health care.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one where science is completely ignored by vast swaths of the population on both ends of the political spectrum, resulting in the furthering of death and misery of millions. On one end, we have anti-vaxxers who believe the COVID-19 vaccination has nefarious origins of varying kinds and is therefore permanently untrusted. The reality is, the vaccine works, and we should all get it. But on the other end, we have vaccinated individuals in low risk cities who think they still need masks to protect themselves even if they are fully vaccinated. Yet, the vaccine is highly effective at preventing breakthrough cases—in fact, being vaccinated makes having a deadly, or even severe, breakthrough case virtually impossible. Due to the politicized nature of COVID-19, many doctors are experiencing compassion fatigue and are at their wit's end. If nothing changes, the medical system could collapse.

The Plague by Albert Camus illustrated the experience of doctors during an epidemic. And for the most part, Camus' characterization is accurate. Specifically, his illustration of a doctor mirrors first-hand accounts from millions of doctors and health care professionals over the last two years. Many become doctors out of optimism or hope to help others. The profession, of course, lends itself to these aspirations, but also brings with it the necessity of witnessing horrors. Having to watch patients die is one such horror. A particularly grim example Camus mentioned is when doctors witness those who are on the cusp of death, but refuse to accept their demise. These horrors are amplified during pandemics, and reports of doctors needing to weigh who to let live and who to let die when hospitals have been overwhelmed is evidence enough of this.

As a New Yorker, it does seem as if the pandemic is over. Things have primarily returned to business as usual here. But for some doctors across the United States—where, as a whole, COVID deaths have just had their second highest peak since the very beginning of the pandemic—things have not changed. If anything—because of the highly politicized and misinformation-tarnished nature of public health messaging—things are at their worst for doctors.

Prior to the pandemic, doctors were expected to have an infinite capacity for care and compassion toward patients. This is clearly unrealistic, but, it is a source of great tension for health care providers. In The Plague, a patient asked the main protagonist Dr. Bernard Rieux how he could be so cruel when he was left no other choice but to allow his patients to die, due to the effects of the plague. Rieux's response was that his lack of cruelty rested in his ability to maintain the façade of having an infinite capacity for compassion for his patients without waking up every day in absolute anguish.

Close-up of a doctor's stethoscope
Close-up of a doctor's stethoscope. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The commonality of compassion fatigue in the medical profession is currently at an all-time record high. And some doctors have spoken out.

"There is a feeling that 'I'm risking my life, my family's life, my wellbeing for people who don't care about me,'" said Philadelphia psychiatrist Mona Masood. In fact, doctors are even beginning to protest about it. Their protests—along with millions of lamentations online from doctors globally—are primarily targeted at those who refuse to be vaccinated. And for many doctors, it has gotten to the point where—conceptually—they don't want to treat unvaccinated people anymore. Many doctors have left medicine for good.

Why should we expect anything different when at least 20 percent of the U.S. population will not get vaccinated, countless health care workers do not want the COVID-19 vaccine and are now threatened with job loss via vaccine mandates? The U.S. medical system is only slated to become worse. And that's despite the case that vaccine mandates are practical and justified for those working near the immunocompromised, like some doctors and nurses.

Health care workers dedicate themselves sincerely to their profession, and thank goodness for that. But the ingratitude they've experienced as of late has gotten to the point where some doctors are so demoralized that they've begun expressing that some (namely, the unvaccinated) are no longer entitled to treatment, for denying the science up until the very last second that they need it—namely, in the ICU—is a total slap in the face to everything these doctors have stood for and done in their careers.

Consider for a moment what the likely response will be: resistance, followed by vaccine and mask mandates, which will be followed by more resistance. Within this vicious cycle, more variants will surely arise—as COVID-19 is unlikely to ever disappear, as most scientists now agree that it is endemic. We can be sure that the number of health care workers who either quit their jobs, get fired from their jobs, or worse, die by suicide will increase if we continue to see sporadic but significant surges in COVID-19.

The health care system was weakened considerably by the pandemic. If labor shortages increase and health care workers continue to get caught in the middle of the political strife on vaccines, the U.S. medical system could break down.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.