According to a national survey of physicians, released this week nearly 1 in 2 US doctors are themselves suffering from burnout. That’s more than any other US workers.
Overtaxed doctors are not only at risk for personal problems, like relationship issues and alcohol misuse, but their job-related fatigue can also erode professionalism, compromise quality of care, increase medical errors and encourage early retirement – a potentially critical problem as an aging population demands more medical care.
Survey participants completed a 22-item Burnout Inventory questionnaire, which measured emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (treating patients as objects rather than human beings) and low sense of personal accomplishment. Of the 27,276 physicians asked to participate, 26.7% responded. They had to report only one symptom to be included among those reporting burnout.
Differences in burnout rate varied by specialty: While most people assume that the surgical or cancer specialties would be at highest risk, the researchers from the Mayo Clinic found that emergency medicine, internal medicine, neurology and family medicine reported the highest rates.
“Nearly 60% of physicians in those specialties had high levels of burnout,” says says lead author Tait Shanafelt MD. “This is concerning since many elements critical to the success of health care reform are built upon increasing the role of the primary care providers.”
On the other hand, doctors practicing pathology, dermatology, general pediatrics and preventive medicine had the lowest rates of burnout.
In other words, it’s the physicians on the front line of care who are most likely to burn out.
“The rates are higher than expected,”. Commented Shanafelt “We expected maybe 1 out of 3.
Being asked to see more patients and not having enough time to spend with them creates an atmosphere of being on a hamster wheel, says physician Jeff Cain, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
While the current prevalence of burnout is alarming many predict it could get worse as health care reform takes hold and the medical profession has to take on the additional workload associated with the millions of patients who will be newly insured under the health care law.
While the Affordable Care Act will put more pressure on the front lines, this new study could be an important wake-up call. The country needs to hear to build multidisciplinary health care teams to meet the need and help unburden our poor put-upon physicians, so they in turn can help us.