‘They don’t care about us’: Future doctors are fleeing Santa Clara County
Resident physicians—who deliver babies, read CT scans and run ICUs—said they’re growing frustrated with VMC leadership. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Doctors in training are fleeing Santa Clara County, and they blame ongoing workload issues and dismissive leadership at Valley Medical Center.

    Their complaints about being overworked and undervalued, along with numerous issues brought up by other health care workers at VMC, are raising concerns for some elected officials—with one vowing to get to the root of the problem.

    “I am deeply concerned about the plight of our medical residents and their important contribution to our health care system,” county Supervisor Otto Lee told San José Spotlight. “If this cannot be resolved quickly, I will introduce a referral to ensure that these issues are being properly addressed by the hospital leadership.”

    Resident physicians—who deliver babies, read CT scans and run ICUs—said they’re growing frustrated with VMC leadership, especially Chief Medical Officer Dr. Phuong Nguyen who is tasked with advocating for them.

    Doctors in training describe a work culture where their concerns and grievances are often ignored or dismissed. Emails sent to Nguyen sit unanswered for weeks at times, and she routinely fails to attend scheduled meetings with the Committee of Interns and Residents Service Employees International Union, the resident physicians’ union. The local chapter at VMC represents roughly 100 medical residents.

    “It really became very frustrating for us,” a resident physician told San José Spotlight. “At a certain point, it becomes hard to distinguish between obstruction and incompetence.”

    San José Spotlight is not naming the resident physicians and other VMC workers due to fear of retaliation. This news organization talked to a total of six doctors and resident physicians who shared corroborating stories.

    Nguyen didn’t respond to the resident physicians’ claims.

    Medical residents said many of them were out sick with COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, forcing others to take on their responsibilities. But Nguyen has refused to acknowledge the staffing issues altogether, they said. The workforce, some of whom served as frontline workers during the most challenging times of the pandemic, also sounded the alarm on the lack of mental health resources during an August call with Nguyen.

    In response, they said Nguyen told them to wait for a counseling session through the county that could take months to open up, change their health care providers or call the national suicide hotline—an answer many said was inappropriate and lacked compassion.

    “It feels like residents are not valued, and we’re not human beings,” another resident physician told San José Spotlight, referring to Nguyen’s response to their mental health concerns. “We feel like we’re not being heard, and they don’t care about us.”

    Medical residents said they have no plans to stay with VMC after their programs end due to current leadership. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Unfriendly environment

    Medical residents who spoke to San José Spotlight said they have no plans to stay with VMC after their programs end due to the current leadership. Only one resident in the primary care program decided to stay at VMC in the last five years, but left the hospital after nine months.

    “I love the people I work with and I love the patient population,” a resident physician told San José Spotlight. “It’s just not a good work environment.”

    VMC CEO Paul Lorenz said the hospital has worked to addressed complaints from resident physicians through COVID pay bonuses and mental health counseling expansion.

    “We have every confidence in the leadership of Dr. Nguyen and all of our health care executives who provide compassionate and caring leadership and guidance to our workforce,” Lorenz told San José Spotlight. “The health and wellness of our workforce is a high priority, one which is fully supported by Dr. Nguyen and all of our executives.”

    VMC medical residents’ grievances come after health care workers across Santa Clara County’s hospital system sounded alarms over ongoing worker shortages, outdated equipment and tone-deaf leadership. Workers said the yearslong issue is made worse by COVID-19, resulting in an average wait between eight and 14 hours for emergency services, a backlog of hundreds of patients and monthslong waits for basic, non-invasive screenings. The work conditions, coupled with two years of stalled contract negotiations, prompted more than 450 doctors represented by Valley Physician Group to threaten a strike in late October. The union called off the strike after reaching an agreement with the county.

    One of the most contentious issues for resident physicians is workload and pay. Medical residents, some of whom work 100 hours a week, said they are routinely called into work to cover for others sick with COVID-19 without any extra compensation—a stark difference compared to others at VMC, including nurses and full-time physicians who are compensated for overtime.

    Union members wanted a new policy that would pay them more for the extra hours, but hospital leaders refused, according to medical residents. The residents escalated their grievances to the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, which ended up agreeing to giving them a one-time bonus.

    “It’s a small Band-Aid, honestly,” a resident physician said, adding it took the county a year to come to an agreement. “(Extra pay) is something that was implemented at other hospitals very early during COVID.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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