SANTA CLARA COUNTY’S health care system could face a mass exodus of doctors due to poor working conditions and lack of respect from management.

More than 200 out of 288 county-employed doctors don’t plan to stay at Santa Clara Valley Medical Care (VMC) — nearly 69 percent of whom plan to exit the system in the next three years, a survey conducted by Valley Physician Group shows. The group is a union representing more than 450 county-employed physicians.

Among those planning to leave, three out of five physicians cited not being respected by county management as the reason. More than 70 percent of doctors said they feel worse about their jobs compared to last year.

The doctors have been working without a contract for more than a year, and the union has been in negotiations with the county for more than two years.

Dr. Steve Harris, president of Valley Physician Group, said the issues are the direct result of county leaders failing to listen and address doctors’ concerns. The county already lost 65 primary care doctors in the last five years, and it has not been able to retain people from its residency program over the same period, he said.

“These (survey) numbers are shocking and they should be a wake up call to the county,” Harris told San José Spotlight. “This used to be a place people would come to spend their careers, and it’s no longer the case.”

Job dissatisfaction or negotiating tactic?

County officials, including Executive Jeff Smith, have repeatedly said the health care system has no issues, downplaying physicians’ concerns as a tactic to win a favorable contract.

“We are in negotiations with the physician union right now and have no comment regarding the union’s attempts to bring attention to the negotiations in the press,” Smith told San José Spotlight, referring to the survey.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez told San José Spotlight she can’t comment on ongoing negotiations. The other supervisors did not respond in time for publication.

“This used to be a place people would come to spend their careers, and it’s no longer the case.”

Dr. Steve Harris, president of Valley Physician Group

The survey came after the union sounded the alarm on yearslong problems at VMC, where doctors said they’re being asked to prioritize quantity over quality health care. Doctors said they’re pushed to a breaking point, with some of the most vulnerable patients in the region having to wait months for appointments, crucial scanning and diagnoses.

Harris said the issue is not solely about pay increases, and the union is considering a strike if Santa Clara County doesn’t agree on a contract soon.

“This is about working conditions and how working conditions are so tightly linked to patient care, but the county has no sense of urgency to address these problems,” Harris said.

County-employed physicians in a number of departments have told San José Spotlight they’re at their wits’ end after years of seeing feedback and concerns ignored and minimized.

The issues at VMC, such as ongoing worker shortages, are not unique — but physicians said they’re frustrated with tone-deaf leadership. Health care 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 months of waiting for basic, non-invasive screenings. Many health care workers, including doctors, are doing the job of two or three people, they said.

‘Forever’ not for always

More than 76 percent of surveyed doctors said VMC is not providing adequate care to patients and 90 percent said the county isn’t providing enough resources and workers to support them.

A doctor with about five years of experience at VMC said they are contemplating leaving, along with four other physicians in the same department. They said they have to spent their days off catching up on administrative tasks because of the large workload. San José Spotlight is not naming the doctors due to their fear of retaliation.

“I thought that I had found my forever job (at VMC), but the more I think about it, I just feel hopeless,” the physician told San José Spotlight. “What’s crazy to me is the fact we’re one of the richest counties in the United States, and this is how we’re choosing to treat our patients.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.