"Burnout" is not a specific medical diagnosis in the United States, but it is generally defined as a specific type of work-related stress that results in a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.
A new study published by the National Academy of Medicine has found that up to half of all clinicians in the United States have reported “substantial” feelings of burnout, including exhaustion, high depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.
Physician burnout obviously has negative effects on the physical and mental health of the physician who is experiencing it. However, it also poses a unique danger to the general public. Physician burnout can increase risks to patients. It leads to malpractice claims, clinical absenteeism, higher employee turnover, and overall reduced productivity.
Researchers found that the early part of a medical career is the most likely time for a medical professional to experience burnout. The study reported that 35 and 54% of nurses and doctors experience burnout. Among medical students and residents, as many as 60% experience burnout. Every year in the United States, around 2,400 doctors leave the workforce with burnout cited as the most common reason.
Most troubling, the report found that doctors who report that they are experiencing burnout are at least twice as likely to also report that they have made a major medical error within the past three months when compared to their colleagues who do not report burnout. Doctors suffering from burnout are also more likely to be involved in a malpractice litigation suit, the report found.
In addition to medical errors, physicians who report that they are suffering from burnout also report other mental health and substance abuse disorders, such as alcoholism, depression, and suicide.
The report went on to explore the causes of physician burnout and to suggest some potential solutions. Burnout was attributed to changes in the health care system which have resulted in excessive workloads, long hours, and frequent on-call duties. These findings track with other studies, including the outcome from the Physician Misery Index. A survey found that:
- 87% of surveyed physicians said they find it increasingly harder to spend time “developing an authentic engagement with each patient.”
- 77% reported they know a physician who is likely to stop practicing in the next five years due to burnout.
- 74% said the challenges of practicing medicine in today's environment have caused them to consider career options outside of clinical practice.
- 83% said they are personally at risk for burnout at some point in their career.
The respondents also offered potential strategies to combat physician burnout. These include: focusing on work-life balance, reducing physician hours, increasing the amount of mental and physical wellness resources available to doctors, and providing professional and leadership development.