A Primary Medical Crisis: Physician Burnout

For the past years, we have been witnessing rapid technical and clinical innovations in our healthcare industry. While these new strategies and approaches to patient care and management can provide several benefits, we are forgetting a major concern that needs attention as well – physician burnout.

Physician burnout is a syndrome characterized by high emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Healthcare professionals who suffer from this syndrome are fighting an invisible battle of lack of satisfaction and fulfillment from their work.

In a survey conducted by Medscape for the “National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report 2019”, they identified these 7 medical specialties to have the highest percentage of burnout cases:

-Physical medicine and rehabilitation
-Internal medicine
-Emergency medicine
-Family medicine

Physicians who acknowledged they are experiencing burnout cope up with the situation in various ways. In the Medscape survey, 50% of the respondents answered that they exercise, while 43% prefers to talk with their family members or friends. These answers are the ideal ways to cope with burnout; however, there are still quite a number of respondents who gave less than ideal coping mechanisms – isolating themselves from others, eating junk foods and drinking alcohol.

Burnout is seen to be linked to a number of undesirable factors. The authors of a discussion paper – Burnout Among Health Care Professionals: A Call to Explore and Address This Underrecognized Threat to Safe, High-Quality Care – which was published on the National Academy of Medicine, categorized these factors into two: those that are work-related and the demographic profiles of physicians.

The discussion paper identifies the following work-related factors that could possibly lead to physician burnout:

-Increased time spent on work
-Attending night or weekend calls
-Bringing work stress at home
-Work-home conflict
-Certain specialties induce more stress
-Private practice work
-Receiving incentive payments
-Being a mid-career physician
-Choosing a career that is not your passion
-Enduring the weight of clerical burdens

Moreover, the authors mentioned that further research is needed on these 3 particular items:

-Identifying factors in the organizational and health care system that could possibly cause an increase of distress among health professionals
-The implication of a physician’s distress and well-being on their health care outcomes
-Finding ways to improve the well-being of health care professionals at work

We all know that burnout occurs in every profession, but the burnout rate among physicians is higher than that of other occupations. In the United States, it’s quite prevalent and is growing at an alarming rate. According to a study conducted by doctors from the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, burnout among physicians went up from 45.5% to 54.4% in just three years.

Physician burnout is extremely a vital issue that needs to be addressed. Health care professionals who are experiencing burnout tend to be less empathic, and this could have a negative impact on how they attend to their patients. Burnout physicians are more likely to provide lower quality of healthcare and service to patients who wished to experience good outcomes.

Unfortunately, although burnout is incredibly common among physicians, it is considered a taboo subject in the workplace. Solutions to solve the issue such as stress management are not given much attention in medical schools or residency training.

For this reason, the American Medical Association has committed itself to eliminate physician workout and make it a thing of the past. They are conducting studies and are developing ways to address the factors triggering physician burnout – technology, time constraints, and work regulations. The AMA is evaluating an organization’s well-being and ensures that it is providing guidance and solutions catered to supporting the overall wellbeing of physicians.

One of AMA’s project is the STEPS Forward developed by Dr. Christians Sinsky to help improve the efficiency of healthcare practices and decrease the incidence of burnout. The STEPS Forward module – “Creating the Organizational Foundation for Joy in Medicine” – provides a toolkit that aims to guide the executive leadership team create a meaningful and happy working environment with a thriving workforce for all physicians.

Furthermore, the AMA is also encouraging the Congress, health institutions and government health plans to recognize this new crisis as a warning signal of the dysfunction of our health system.