How will the Psychological Impact of COVID-19 Affect Career Choices in Medicine?

Written by: Dr. Nisha Cooch
Published on: Apr 9, 2020

Nurse checking IV

Residency start dates are up in the air, graduating medical students celebrated Match Day virtually, and some medical schools have graduated students early. Though these effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on medical training are largely out of the control of budding physicians, those aspiring to become doctors face career choices that may now be altered as a result of their experiences in the face of this pandemic.

We hear a lot about how COVID-19 is affecting healthcare providers on the front lines. Less in focus, though, is how this significant public health event will affect those in training and even those who have been considering a career in medicine but have not yet entered or applied to medical school. For this younger generation of potential physicians, the psychological impact of the pandemic is distinct from that of their elders, who are already trained and hardly have a moment to consider what role they would like to play in this public health crisis.

As the only ones capable of doing so, practicing physicians continue forging ahead with patient care. For them, the psychological impact of the disease is largely related to anxiety about exposure for themselves and their loved ones. Some are facing psychological trauma associated with an unforeseen and unprecedented killer affecting high numbers of people and requiring the system in which they have always worked to be restructured. Less frequently, it seems, are practicing physicians considering leaving their careers in response to COVID-19.

From a psychological perspective, though, there is a sunk cost phenomenon that is associated with the time and money required to become a physician that may make it more likely that those who have already done all or most of this training will stay dedicated to their chosen careers. Younger professionals will be less influenced by the sense that they have invested greatly in their medical careers or that medicine is inextricably linked from their identity. Instead, they will face the effects of being more acutely aware of what it can mean to practice medicine and the sacrifice it can require.

Medical Student studying

Thus far, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has only reinvigorated medical students’ commitment to medicine. Third and fourth-year students have eagerly stepped up to find creative ways to support healthcare efforts while they have been largely banned from their clinical rotations due to shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). From helping to address rural health challenges, to developing and disseminating communications materials, to providing people with critical information regarding the virus, these students have found ways to leverage their training to fight the pandemic even if from behind the scenes. This trend seems to suggest that those who have already undergone their training will not waiver in their decision to pursue a career in medicine, though it remains to be seen if their choice of specialty may shift to reflect either an increasing or decreasing interest in those areas most affected by the virus.  

Perhaps when it comes to any influence of the pandemic on choice of career, the psychological impact will be seen further downstream as undergraduate students and high school students consider from a new perspective what they are signing up for when they choose their healthcare field. It is certainly easier – psychologically and otherwise – to cut bait before you have much skin in the game. Only time will tell if this pandemic affects the rate at which people pursue careers in medicine or the specific roles they tend to seek. For now, it is heartening to see that healthcare professionals and those they are mentoring are doubling down on their loyalty to their field and their dedication to patients.

For front-line clinical tools and resources to help you deliver excellent care and information to your patients, please visit the Elsevier COVID-19 Pandemic Hub.