Physician Reviewers

A Look at Physician Burnout

April 21, 2017

Physician in a hospital hallway with head in hands, experiencing doctor burnout from a stressful job.

There is no denying physicians have stressful jobs. Every day, people place their lives and well-being in physicians’ hands and ask these professionals to have all of the answers. In addition to these high expectations, doctors must see numerous patients each day while keeping on top of administrative duties, technological advancements, continuing education and legislative changes. For doctors who run their own practices, the demands of running a business consistently compete with caring for patients and make it hard for them to strike that all-important work-life balance.

There is much more to being a physician than practicing medicine, and being pulled away from doing the work they love can lead to physician burnout. This psychological state is more than feeling tired. It involves complex negative emotions, even toward patients and co-workers, a lack of personal satisfaction and enthusiasm in one’s career, and a reduced sense of self-worth. It can lead to depression, divorce, substance abuse or even suicide. Physician burnout is a persistent and growing problem and it needs a closer look.

Physician Burnout Statistics 

Multiple studies in recent years have found approximately half of U.S. doctors experience burnout, with Medscape’s 2017 Physician Lifestyle Report finding 51 percent of physicians reported being burnt out. This was a significant increase from the 2015 lifestyle report, which found 46 percent of respondents had burnout. Burnout rates vary depending on the doctor’s specialty. In 2017, emergency medicine experienced a burnout rate of 59 percent, followed by obstetrics/gynecology at 56 percent and family medicine, internal medicine and infectious disease all at 55 percent.

Burnout’s Avoidable Consequences

The negative emotions associated with burnout can lead any professional – including a physician – to perform their duties inadequately. Doctors who are tired, stressed, and unsatisfied with their jobs are more likely to make costly and potentially deadly mistakes. Without the drive to provide excellent care, physicians may be more likely to order unnecessary tests, procedures, and treatments. These could, in turn, lead to insurance obstacles for patients. While some mistakes may result in poor patient experiences, other errors could harm the patient or lead to early death.

Burnout not only has a potentially high cost for patients and facilities, it also hurts the entire medical community. Burnout can lead doctors to leave their chosen profession altogether – a significant issue when the U.S. is already experiencing a physician shortage. The latest figures by the Association of American Medical Colleges show a shortage of between 40,800 and 104,900 doctors by 2030. However, if physicians and administrators focus on the underlying causes of burnout and implement strategies to mitigate this issue, then many of these consequences can be avoided, and physicians can truly put patients first.

Battling Burnout

The best approach to battling burnout is to first, address the causes of it and second, to ensure physicians who are burnt out receive help, Definitive Healthcare found. One of the main underlying causes of burnout is that physicians take on a significant administrative burden, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. It may seem like physicians spend most of their time with patients, but up to half of their work day may be documenting patient records, entering information into electronic systems and talking on the phone with insurance companies. Facilities can help physicians by ensuring there are enough support staff who are properly trained in the electronic records system and coding and billing practices. Capable support staff that are able to tackle paperwork and other administrative duties allow more time for physicians to focus on patients.

Since scheduling and long work hours are also part of the problem, facilities can work on ensuring doctors have control and flexibility in their scheduling, including plenty of time off to relax. Administrators may want to develop wellness programs that include mindfulness training, which has been shown to improve the feelings associated with burnout. Additionally, they can elect committees to educate about burnout, instill prevention protocols and monitor physicians’ well-being. A standing committee can ensure a facility’s dedication to preventing and treating burnout does not fade.

In both preventing and treating burnout, facilities must strive to change their culture. Physicians are held to high standards, part of which is to remain strong and capable no matter what else goes on. Facilities must break down the barriers to treating burnout caused by these high expectations, enabling physicians to admit there is an issue and seek help for it. This is particularly important when physicians may be suffering from mental illnesses like depression, which can be highly stigmatized.

For physicians, the stakes at work are high, and the difficulty of the job is not going to change. However, positive steps can be taken to reduce stress and support physicians so they can pursue their work with satisfaction and integrity. As an Independent Review Organization (IRO), Advanced Medical Reviews (AMR) relies heavily on the work of our physician reviewers being accurate, timely and thorough. We support our physicians in a number of ways, from our flexible and intuitive platform to our Case Coordinators who work closely with physicians. Many physicians find working as a physician reviewer to be a rewarding source of supplemental work because of the flexibility in scheduling and the flexible workload. Our belief is that every patient should receive quality healthcare, and quality physicians administer quality healthcare.

A Look at Physician Burnout