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Physician Burnout: It's Bad And Getting Worse, Survey Finds

This article is more than 6 years old.

A new study suggests that burnout among doctors is rampant and getting worse.

The study -- a survey of nearly 7,000 physicians from all specialties, conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association -- concludes that nearly half of doctors in the U.S. experience some level of burnout, defined by the authors as "a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, loss of meaning in work, feelings of ineffectiveness, and a tendency to view people as objects rather than as human beings."

The long-term implications are profound: Beyond the personal toll, the researchers write, "...burnout appears to impact the quality of care physicians provide, and physician turnover, which [has] profound implications for the quality of the health care delivery system."

For some context, I turned to someone who has been there: Diane Shannon is a doctor who left her medical career for sheer self-preservation and wrote about it for CommonHealth in 2013. She's now writing a book on the topic (based, in part, on the overwhelming response to her post). Here's her view of the new findings, via email:

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At Linzer’s hospital, burnout is measured among all doctors, and his team recommends specific solutions for each department. One department had especially high burnout scores. The team determined that a key stressor for the doctors, many of whom were parents of young children, was inflexible office hours. The physicians often were pulled between the need to stay late with a patient and the need to pick up their child on time from daycare. With a simple policy change, the doctors were able to begin seeing patients earlier and leave work on time. With this and other targeted changes, burnout rates in the department dropped substantially.

Although it is disheartening to learn that burnout is on the upswing, as a physician who left her chosen profession and has interviewed scores of burned out physicians, the new research findings substantiate both the magnitude of the problem and the importance of fixing the root cause — a faulty system — rather than the symptoms alone. Also, perhaps increased attention to the problem will remove the stigma attached to burnout: none of the doctors I’ve interviewed would speak publicly about their experience. Addressing physician burnout in ways that are truly effective will benefit doctors and the patients they serve.

Here's more from the latest study, which compares nationwide responses from a 2011 survey against responses from 2014. (A caveat: of the 35,922 physicians who received an invitation to participate, only 6880, or 19.2%, completed surveys.)

...54.4% of the physicians reported at least 1 symptom of burnout in 2014 compared with 45.5% in 2011. Satisfaction with work-life balance also declined in physicians between 2011 and 2014 (48.5% vs 40.9%). Substantial differences in rates of burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance were observed by specialty...[and there's] an increasing disparity in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians relative to the general U.S. working population.

The study concludes: "Burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in U.S. physicians worsened from 2011 to 2014. More than half of U.S. physicians are now experiencing professional burnout."

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