Dealing with Physician Burnout


Many physicians today feel as though they are under assault by a healthcare system that prioritizes finances over their personal care — even over patient care. It’s a continual barrage that has seen dissatisfaction within the medical profession skyrocket, sometimes with tragic results. We compiled the following information to help physicians who suspect their feelings of burnout are contributing to a decreased quality of life. Please understand that you are not alone. There are steps you can take today to begin reducing the stress you feel. Confidential help and support are available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call: (800) 273-8255. Here are the following methods to understanding and dealing with physician burnout:

                          What Is Physician Burnout?

There are multiple definitions for the term “physician burnout.” The most common definition involves the combination of three characteristics displayed by physicians:

  • Emotional exhaustion, which occurs when a physician exceeds his or her capacity for emotional stress; it manifests both by physical symptoms and a sense of being psychologically and emotionally drained
  • Depersonalization, which the physician expresses as negativity and cynicism
  • A sense of reduced personal accomplishment, where the physician conveys doubt about whether he or she is effective at providing care

Studies suggest, however, that the condition involves the full array of “classical” depressive symptoms. That includes:

  • A recurring depressed mood
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in any activity
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • A diminished ability to think or concentrate
  • Suicidal ideation

Those feelings can be overwhelming.

The American Psychiatry Association estimates that 300 to 400 doctors die by suicide each year. That’s more than double the rate of the general population, and as much as one entire medical school every year.

Burnout is a long-term stress reaction. More than half of physicians display signs of it. Burnout may affect the quality of care they provide and can undermine the doctor-patient relationship. That’s why many experts consider physician burnout a public health threat. Therefore, making it very important to understand the methods for dealing with physician burnout.

                     What Causes Physician Burnout?

Many different factors contribute to physician burnout, including:

  • A lack of control over their work conditions
  • Excessive pressure on their time
  • Chaotic workplaces and poor workplace culture

Excessive and prolonged stress in the workplace spurs emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. “Burnout syndrome” is not limited to physicians. Jobs with a lot of stress, such as public safety and teaching, must also deal with it. But it’s considered the highest in healthcare.

Family practitioner Pam Wible told NPR she dislikes the term “burnout.” She feels it blames physicians who are encouraged, beginning in medical school, to simply power through long hours. “’These people who have been previously abused [by unhealthy and untenable expectations] are now the teachers,’ she says. ‘They’re teaching the next generation of doctors.’”

  How To Prevent and Reduce Physician Burnout

The human component is the most important one when it comes to dealing with physician burnout, but it’s also possible to append a financial cost to it. Physician burnout can translate into:

  • Increased medical errors
  • Decreased patient satisfaction
  • Reduced retention

That last one, for example, comes with an estimated price tag of $250,000. That’s what it costs for a healthcare facility to replace or recruit a primary care physician when one leaves.

Recognizing the real and potential damage to physicians, patients, and hospital systems caused by burnout, healthcare leaders and organizations are working to change the culture by:

  • Encouraging physicians to work fewer hours, and offer flexible and part-time schedules
  • Modeling a work-home balance that underscores the value they apply to overall well-being
  • Helping them control the work they must perform (by extending appointment times and redistributing work, for example) and reducing bureaucratic frustrations

           How To Recover from Physician Burnout

There are nearly as many tips on recovering from burnout as there are reasons for burning out. They include:

  • Taking a leave of absence
  • Delegating more
  • Thinking positively
  • Learning to say “no”

For physicians burdened by burnout’s many symptoms and complications, however, tactics such as “delegating more” and “thinking positively” may not suffice.

Instead, a bolder move such as a leave of absence might be necessary. For some, recuperating from a full-on case of burnout might not be possible. The only way forward might be one that leaves the profession completely behind.

As former clinician Diane Shannon writes in “Why I Left Medicine: A Burnt-Out Doctor’s Decision To Quit:” When I introduce myself as a physician who left clinical practice, non-physicians ask me why I left. They’re generally intrigued that someone who sacrificed many years and many dollars for medical training would then change her mind. But physicians, almost universally, never ask me why I left. Instead, they ask me how. They call and email me with logistical questions, wanting to learn the secret of how I managed the transition out of clinical medicine (read “escape”).

                                                Next Steps

Resources are available to help physicians navigate the pressure, stress, and challenges they face.

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
  • A list of available support and resources for physicians battling burnout and considering self-harm
  • The Mini-Z Burnout Survey, which helps gauge workplace stress levels

iRad works with physicians and others in the medical community to help them implement business practices designed to afford them more control over their day and an improved quality of life. Learn more here or contact us.

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