Long COVID continues to affect doctors

by Peter Blackburn

Survey finds doctors face loss of income and employment owing to virus's legacy 

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 4 July 2023
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Long COVID is having a ‘devastating’ effect on doctors who have lost jobs, lost income and find even the most mundane tasks near-impossible owing to debilitating symptoms. 

Those were the findings of a major new survey of more than 600 doctors which also revealed that frontline staff face huge barriers to accessing treatment. 

The survey, which was carried out in partnership with the support group Long Covid Doctors for Action, is the first comprehensive survey of doctors with post-acute COVID health complications, which are often referred to as ‘Long COVID’. 

The survey findings form part of a report published today, which also includes input from scores of doctors living with long COVID. The findings paint a stark picture of the devastating effect long COVID is having on this group of people who were doing their job during the pandemic and deserved to be better protected – and for whom many feel completely let down by a system that they say has turned its back on them.


Function impaired

The report reveals that doctors face a wide variety of symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, muscular pain, nerve damage, joint pain, ongoing respiratory problems and many more. And around 60 per cent of doctors told the BMA that post-acute COVID ill health has affected their ability to carry out day-to-day activities on a regular basis.

Almost one-in-five respondents, 18 per cent, reported that they were now unable to work due to their post-acute COVID ill-health and less than one in three, 31 per cent, of doctors said they were working full-time, compared with more than half, 57 per cent, before the onset of their illness.

‘I nearly lost my life, my home, my partner and my career,’ one anonymous locum junior doctor said. ‘I have received little support to help keep these. The impact on my mental health nearly cost [me] my life again.’

The report also revealed that nearly half of doctors, 48 per cent, said they have experienced some form of loss of earnings as a result of post-acute COVID.

An anonymous salaried GP said: ‘I can no longer work, finances are ruined. I didn’t have employment protection so I am now unemployed and penniless.’


Duty of care

The BMA says Government and employers have a moral duty to support staff – and also have responsibility to address these issues to a loss of doctors having ‘serious implications’ for the ability of the NHS to meet patient demand and ensure safe patient care. 

The association is also calling for better protection for healthcare workers, who remain at risk, ensuring adequate workplace risk assessment, as well as infection prevention and control processes in healthcare settings, against airborne transmission of COVID-19 and other pathogens. This means providing clean air everywhere in healthcare, by improved ventilation and air filtration and the provision of RPE (respiratory protective equipment).

The BMA report demands financial support for doctors and healthcare staff with post-acute COVID, post-acute COVID to be recognised as an occupational disease in healthcare workers, with a definition that covers all of the debilitating disease’s symptoms and for improved access to physical and mental health services to aid comprehensive assessment, appropriate investigations and treatment.

The report also calls for greater workplace protection for healthcare staff risking their lives for others and better support for post-acute COVID sufferers to return to work safely if they can, including a flexible approach to the use of workplace adjustments.

BMA board of science chair David Strain said: ‘We know that throughout the pandemic Covid-19 had a profound and often tragic impact on healthcare workers, but now this report and the heart-breaking accounts within it lay bare the debilitating effect that the virus continues to have on those doctors living with long-term symptoms.

‘Contrary to what some may associate with the term "long COVID", these doctors are not just "a bit tired", nor are they "withdrawn due to the isolation of lockdowns". They are living with a range of serious health conditions caused by their initial COVID-19 infection, most likely caught while they were caring for others on the front line.’


Routine undermined

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Professor Strain added: ‘Many describe not being able to do basic daily tasks like brushing their hair, cooking for their children or the basic arithmetic required to pay for items in shops, let alone go to work as a doctor with gruelling hours, and frequent complex decision-making that patients’ safety hinges on.

‘Even within the medical community, it’s clear from the survey findings that there needs to be much more awareness of the range of symptoms that long COVID encompasses, and far better availability of specialist care and support for those living with it.’

BMA occupational medicine committee co-chair Professor Raymond Agius said: ‘During the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors were left exposed and unprotected at work. They often did not have access to the right PPE. In particular many doctors were denied effective RPE – ie respirators which would have considerably reduced their risk of contracting this airborne disease. Too many risk assessments of workplaces and especially of vulnerable doctors were not undertaken.

‘This report underlines the devastating consequences of this lack of protection. Doctors still living with continuing symptoms have once again been left at risk with little to no support from the system that they gave so much to.’

Long Covid Doctors for Action chair Kelly Fearnley said: ‘From the start of this pandemic, UK healthcare workers have been risking their lives and health caring for COVID patients without adequate protection. A significant number are now disabled following preventable occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and are being managed out of the door with no support system in place and without means to financially support themselves and their families. Not only have they lost their health and independence, they have lost their careers and livelihoods, with many now facing financial destitution.

‘One would think, given the circumstances under which we fell ill and current workforce shortages, NHS employers would be eager to do everything to facilitate the return to work of people with long COVID. However, NHS employers are legally required to implement only "reasonable adjustments", and so things such as extended phased return or adjustments to shift patterns, are not always being facilitated. Instead, an increasing number of employers are choosing to terminate contracts. We feel betrayed and completely abandoned.’