Countless youngsters spent their childhoods dreaming of becoming physicians. The chance to treat and heal others, possibly discovering a cure for cancer and other diseases, made the health care industry an attractive profession.
Today’s startling reality is that many doctors experience burnout at alarming levels.
The underlying reasons impacting physician burnout are many and continuously change. Long hours have always been a part of the typical doctor’s lifestyle. Beginning in medical school and continuing into residency, it’s not uncommon for doctors or those in training to work 80 hours or more every week. However, the long hours aren’t the only reason a growing percentage of physicians experience burnout.
One of the primary reasons physicians experience burnout in today’s healthcare industry is because they spend too many hours performing administrative tasks.The time spent adding information to Electronic Health Records (EHR) and performing mundane administrative functions continues to monopolize more and more time – time that could and should be spent on treating patients.
Burnout Impacts Over 50 Percent of Female Doctors
Burnout can mean one of many things when applied to physicians. In short, physician burnout means doctors aren’t performing at their peak performance capabilities and they’re feeling extremely overwhelmed. If any health care professional isn’t feeling or performing at their best, it means the patients they are treating – you and I – aren’t receiving the quality of health care we deserve.
A 2019 report addressing burnout, depression, and suicide rates of physicians found that 44 percent have experienced burnout symptom. Interesting, another survey taken by the same organization in 2020 found that slightly over half of women physicians complained of burnout, compared to 37 percent of men.
In the 2020 article, “Reducing Physician Burnout: 5 Strategies,” it stated, “many of them cite bureaucratic tasks, long hours, and lack of respect as major contributing factors.”
Physicians working in America’s current health care climate face even greater challenges. An excellent example is the world’s attempt to control the COVID-19 pandemic that started straining health care facilities in the winter of 2020. When you combine the stress of dealing with a virus that scientists and physicians didn’t fully understand with existing causes of burnout, a recipe for disaster begins to surface.
Even more startling, another research paper addressing the issue showed that physicians experiencing burnout are twice as likely to make diagnostic errors and display poor communication techniques when dealing with patients. The obvious result is a higher percentage of patient dissatisfaction and medical errors, some of which may cause death.
Too Many Administrative Tasks Has Increased Doctor Burnout
A recent study conducted in part by the Harvard Global Health Institute found that doctors felt overwhelmed by the multitude of administrative functions forced upon them. No one argues administrative tasks aren’t important. Yet, no physician who spent hours dissecting organs in a lab or learning the anatomical structure of humans dreamed they would devote a large part of their day to transcribing patient charts and updating EHRs.
A recent 2021 Medscape report surveying over 12,000 physicians focusing on physician burnout and suicide demonstrated that 58 percent of doctors feel that “too many bureaucratic tasks” is the number one burnout contributor. That’s an increase of three percent from 2020.
Equally alarming, is that over 70 percent of respondents who experience burnout say it’s serious enough to have at least a moderate impact on their life.
Physician burnout can be divided into two parts. The first is individual. While most Americans believe all doctors are wealthy, most physicians come into the workforce with high education debt from all their years of education and training. Combine this with issues that impact others, such as untreated depression and the job’s emotional and physical strains. It’s easy to understand why physician burnout is an overarching issue.
The second part involves workplace dynamics such as ever-increasing documentation requirements mandated by governments and insurance companies. Add the pressure of increased productivity requirements and an intolerant workplace, and you have the start of some major problems.
The American Medical Association recently examined the issue to find solutions to stop this negative trend. Other health care groups have also recognized this devastating trend. While some of the solutions are obvious, reversing them is difficult because administrators seem more interested in cutting costs by having physicians perform non-medical tasks, when in fact, they may be adding costs to the bottom line.
Signs of Physician Burnout
The typical signs of physician “burnout” mirror the symptoms associated with other professions. Fatigue or boredom are words most commonly associated with the diagnosis. However, the underlying components such as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and inefficacy are the most significant concerns.
Dr. Dike Drummond, a family practitioner who writes on physician burnout, identified what he refers to as the “three cardinal symptoms:’
- Exhaustion – where the physicians’ physical and emotional energy levels are low and decreasing.
- Depersonalization – when cynicism and sarcasm dictate comments and thoughts on their work environment.
- Lack of efficacy – when doctors begin to doubt the meaning and quality of their work and performance suffers.
While burnout signs are sometimes obvious, the direct consequences are even greater. A direct link between physician burnout and these symptoms is often seen:
- Lower patient satisfaction
- Increased error rates resulting in increased malpractice risk
- More physician and staff turnover
- Higher incidents of physician alcohol and drug addiction
- Increased suicide rates among physicians
Some solutions such as changes in practice and time management may take time to implement. In the short-term, physicians experiencing the initial stages of burnout or those intertwined in the middle should take time to recharge emotionally and physically.
COVID-19 and Doctor Burnout
Failing to recognize the impact that COVID-19 on physician burnout in 2021 would be a huge mistake.
Imagine if you worked in the Information Technology industry and a new virus that no one had seen impacted your company’s entire computer system. This computer virus disables servers and large networks. It sometimes kills the programmers assigned to write codes to stop the viruses spread. Wouldn’t this scenario add additional workplace stress?
Before COVID, many physicians were already dealing with the symptoms and consequences of burnout. Insert a virus that the world medical community struggles to understand, combined with an increased death rate among some vulnerable populations, and you have yet another disastrous recipe. However, for many physicians, their burnout began before the COVID pandemic.
Not only do physicians worry about the COVID patients they are treating, but also about contracting or transmitting the virus to others.
A study published in 2020 specifically addressed physician burnout. Almost one-third of doctors surveyed about the impact of COVID stated they experienced feelings of hopelessness. Another issue at the beginning of the COVID pandemic was the shortage of protective medical gear, with 30 percent indicating such shortages increased their anxiety levels.
Although some specialists, especially Emergency Room doctors, saw a dramatic increase in patients, other specialties experienced the opposite.
Surgeons who perform elective procedures saw their practices come to a sudden halt. Other specialists stopped seeing patients with COVID, reporting their patient volume dropped between 75 and 90 percent.
To add fuel to the fire, slightly over half of the physicians in this survey indicated the financial strain brought on by COVID contributed to their burnout.
Administrative solutions to doctor burnout
Just how severe of an issue is physician burnout? Recent studies suggest it’s a $4.6 billion problem if you place a dollar amount on the subject.
Hard-to-use EHRs are doing more than their part to contribute to doctor burnout. Transferring a patient’s medical charts from hand-written folders to electronic formats was designed to make record-keeping simple and easy. In many cases, the result is the exact opposite.
The American Medical Association found when surveying nearly 900 doctors, the EHR systems used in most U.S. hospitals and physician offices received an “F” usability grade.
“Too many physicians have experienced the demoralizing effects of cumbersome EHRs that interfere with providing first-rate medical care to patients,” AMA President Patrice Harris, MD said when pressed on the issue.
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How can doctors fight burnout?
Recognizing the symptoms of burnout is much easier than finding the cure.
Try to pinpoint the specific reasons within your setting. Like most other diseases and conditions, each location and type of health care setting can impact burnout of individual physicians. After all, dermatologists may be less likely than surgeons to experience burnout-related symptoms. However, all medical specialities are impacted by burnout.
Begin with the basics. Setting aside quiet time before starting rounds is essential. The same goes for physical exercise. Try a yoga class or other form of exercise you might enjoy. If nothing else, devote 30 minutes each day to a brisk walk or run.
Checking in on other colleagues is also important. Many physicians experience burnout symptoms alone. Asking other colleagues how they are doing or even what strategies they are employing to negate burnout symptoms can also help.
More importantly, physician burnout primarily impacts doctors in their prime or middle part of their career. If viable solutions to this issue aren’t found soon, the U.S. could experience an even greater shortage of physicians in the coming decades.
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