Physician Burnout: Causes, Effects, and Prevention

Burnout is one of the most difficult issues facing physicians today. As enthusiasm for work is replaced with cynicism and a low sense of personal and professional accomplishment, the quality of care provided to patients declines and medical errors become more common. On a personal level, physician burnout can lead to problems in relationships, substance abuse issues, and even suicide. Awareness of physician burnout can help put a stop to these problems, leading to better patient outcomes and improved quality of life for physicians.

What is burnout and who does it affect?

Burnout, as measured by the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is brought on by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low personal accomplishment. Studies have shown that physicians suffer burnout more than any other occupation in the United States. In fact, 54.4% of physicians surveyed by AMA and the Mayo Clinic reported at least one symptom of burnout. But not every physician suffers encounters burnout in the same way: Radiology, family medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and urology specialists reported burnout rates of 60% or more, higher than most other specialties including pathology, neurology, and anesthesiology. Far and away though, emergency medicine physicians are the most likely to experience symptoms of burnout – more than 70% of these doctors reported feeling burned out by their occupation.

Effects of burnout

Burnout has a dire effect on physicians, both in their professional and personal lives. An increased risk of medical errors, decreased quality of care, and a lack of professionalism can all be traced back to a physician that is burnt out in his or her profession. All of these things lead to worse outcomes for patients.

On the personal side, physicians suffering from burnout are more susceptible to relationship problems, alcohol and drug use, and even suicidal thoughts. In fact, physicians have a higher suicide rate than any other occupation in the United States, as an estimated 300-400 physicians commit suicide every year.

How can we stop physician burnout?                            

Physicians have to be aware of their own physical and mental state to make sure they do not succumb to burnout. Scheduling downtime, spending more time with family, and leading an active lifestyle can work wonders for a physician’s well-being. Hospital administrators must also share some of the responsibility of making sure their employees do not become to burned out, and can do so by creating a wellness committee, conducting wellness surveys, and staging individual or facility-wide wellness interventions. These will allow hospital administrators to get a good sense of how their employees are coping with work, and can address any issues they see that lead to burnout.

For more information about preventing burnout in your healthcare facility, please download our white paper How Hospitalists Can Avoid Burnout.

If you or someone you know are in a crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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