The Truth behind Physician Burnout: Causes and Prevention

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Burnout is a common phenomenon experienced by healthcare workers, specifically physicians who are constantly exposed to a high level of stress. The medical industry with its packed work hours, demanding pace, and emotional hurdles can take a toll on clinicians’ mental and physical health.

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as an occupational syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress. It is often characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion
  • feelings of cynicism and heightened mental distance from one’s profession
  • reduced professional effectiveness.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality surveyed 422 family physicians and general internists who worked in 119 ambulatory care clinics. The results show that more than half of the physicians are experiencing time pressures when performing physical examinations. A third need at least 50% more time than was allotted for this patient care function, while a quarter of the respondents need the same amount of time for follow-up appointments.

Similarly, a study conducted by Mayo Clinic reports that 44% percent of physicians are feeling at least one symptom of burnout. As a result, more doctors are leaving their jobs or working reduced hours. According to an analysis by the National Taskforce for Humanity in Healthcare, burnout-related turnovers for physicians could result in $17 billion in costs and $28 billion in lost revenue annually.

Burnout among clinicians has also received significant attention due to its negative impact on patient care. According to a study in the American Journal of Critical Care, high burnout levels have been associated with an increase in medical errors. In a highly sensitive industry like health care, the slightest mistake in data collection or medical prescriptions can put a patient’s entire life at risk.

What causes burnout?

Toxic work conditions, long hours, chaotic environments, and unfavorable organizational culture, can all influence physicians’ feelings of dissatisfaction, stress, and intent to leave the workplace.

Although physicians typically have irregular work schedules and long work weeks, excessive hours will eventually lead to exhaustion and lack of sleep. According to the 2019 Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report, 50% of physicians working more than 60 hours a week and 57% of doctors working more than 70 hours per week are burned out.

Among those with physician burnout, more than half blame the number of administrative tasks they have to face every day. Too much paperwork and charting leaves less time for rest or direct patient care, which is the primary role of physicians and where they find most joy and purpose. Less time with patients can then reduce doctors’ enthusiasm and motivation.

Adding to the stress is the increased demand for convenience and easy access to healthcare. In today’s digital world, modern patients expect faster and more affordable services. These demands are driving a stream of retail clinics and virtual care options, increasing competition and pressure for medical providers. Physicians are also challenged to adapt to digital trends such as telemedicine to increase customer satisfaction and retention.

Poor management likewise has a powerful impact on job satisfaction and burnout levels. Leaders who do not recognize accomplishments can make physicians feel undervalued at work. Similarly, physicians who are unfairly criticized for their shortcomings would have a fear of failure, which can lead to anxiety and poor performance.

How can physician burnout be prevented? 

While there’s no universal cure to burnout, there are ways to soften its blow. The first step to combating burnout is to address its causes. For instance, many of the causes mentioned above are related to time and efficiency. One way to solve this is to fine-tune task delegations and reduce workload.

Most practices are automating their operations. Implementing medical software can automate routine practice tasks including data collection, appointment scheduling, and medical prescribing. Similarly, adopting cloud-based portals and EHR systems can simplify complex processes like patient transfers, assessing medical histories, and filling out patient forms. These technologies are programmed to streamline data tracking and storage, giving doctors more face-to-face time with patients. Taking steps to improve practice efficiency will not only benefit the organization, but also lead to happier and more productive clinicians.

Ultimately, it is the management’s responsibility to promote a culture of mental health and wellness. Scheduling regular catch-ups with medical staff can open channels for feedback, improvement, and progress reviews. Hosting seminars or workshops on stress management, mindfulness, and meditation can reduce physician anxiety and improve focus and motivation. Additionally, free self-assessment tools and clinical screenings for depression should be available to all employees.

Having a healthy work-life balance is the last step to combating burnout. Physicians must remember that they have a life outside of work. Engaging in physical activities, bonding with family, or trying out a new hobby can relax both the brain and body.

No matter how stressful the healthcare industry can be, burnout should never be the norm. Employers must take a proactive role in recognizing and alleviating the symptoms of physician burnout. By embracing digital tools and promoting mental health awareness, they can boost employee morale and improve patient care.