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What is Doctor Burnout?

We can all get burnt out in our jobs. Especially after years of dealing with the same people, the same stress, and no relief in sight, it is easy to get worn out from work. Doctors are no different. Doctors often deal in high-stress and high-stakes situations. Few jobs involve life or death decisions, like emergency room doctors, cardiac surgeons, or neurosurgeons. 

Just because doctors get stressed does not mean they are not responsible for their actions. If a doctor is getting burned out, tired, or stressed, they need to be aware of their responsibilities. If they cannot provide the standard of care required of a medical professional, they need to speak up. If a burned-out doctor makes a mistake, it can cause an innocent patient serious injury, damage, or death. 

When doctor burnout leads to medical malpractice, it is the patient and their family who suffer. Victims of medical errors can file a personal injury lawsuit to recover compensation for their injuries. To find out more about your legal options after a medical accident injury, contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm to get more information. 

What Is Doctor Burnout? 

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), “physician burnout is defined as a long‑term stress reaction characterized by depersonalization. This can include:  

  • Cynical or negative attitudes toward patients. 
  • Emotional exhaustion. 
  • A feeling of decreased personal achievement. 
  • Lack of empathy for patients.”

It should not come as a surprise that these feelings can be negative for patient care. A cynical or negative doctor does not inspire confidence in the patient. A patient may not trust a doctor who does not appear positive or confident in their diagnosis or treatment plan. Patients may choose to go see another doctor or even avoid going to the doctor, which could lead to a lack of treatment for serious conditions. 

Exhaustion is also bad for patients. As was said in an earlier post about physician sleep deprivation, “the physical effects of sleep deprivation can include lack of concentration, attention deficits, delayed reaction time, and lack of coordination.” This can increase the risk of medical errors. A study analyzing sleep data from a National Health Interview Survey found that healthcare support (including doctors and nurses) was among the most sleep-deprived industries. 

Are Patients Aware of Doctor Burnout?

According to a U.S. News & World Report article in U.S. News & World Report, nearly half of all U.S. physicians meet the definition of burnout, compared to about one-quarter of other U.S. workers. 

A Medscape poll found that 60% of doctors in emergency care and 56% of doctors in critical care have expressed burnout. Other medical specialties experiencing burnout include obstetrics and gynecology (53%) and pediatrics (49%). The poll described burnout as “long-term, unresolvable job-related stress that leads to exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of detachment.”

Unfortunately, many patients are unaware of the problem of doctor burnout. Understanding the causes and potential consequences of doctor burnout can help patients manage their own healthcare. When a patient is aware of the problem, it can help them identify when their doctor may not be acting in their full capacity or know when it might be a good time to get a second opinion, or even change their primary care physician. 

A Mayo Clinic research study evaluated burnout in physicians between 2011 and 2020. The study found that physicians remain at increased risk for burnout relative to workers in other fields. Different fields of medicine may be more likely to have burned-out doctors, including emergency medicine, family medicine, physical medicine, and urology. 

Doctor Burnout and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of pressure on frontline workers, including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers. Beginning in about Spring of 2020, doctors were pushed to the limits with a novel disease that was challenging to understand, manage, and control. Doctors were continuing to try out new treatments, and manage healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs), all while trying to avoid contracting the virus themselves. 

Even as vaccines began to roll out and the experts began to understand more about how the disease spreads and what to do about it, new waves of mutated strains continued to come in, all with their own unique challenges. Even years after the virus first started and most people have been vaccinated, the novel coronavirus continues to put pressure on healthcare workers. 

In an AMA article, “What Doctors Wish Patients Knew About Physician Burnout,” one doctor says, “none of us want to admit weakness.” However, there are mental and physical limits. “You can do anything for a defined period of time when there’s an endpoint,” said Dr. Kevin Hopkins, “but this has now gone on for nearly two years and we don’t see any endpoints. You are just exhausted and overwhelmed all the time.”

Staff shortages are continuing, as older workers are retiring and there are fewer trained healthcare workers to take their place. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, almost 20% of U.S. hospitals are critically understaffed. 

Older people are living longer than ever and people with serious conditions can take advantage of new medications and treatment options to continue living their lives longer than expected. This means more patients and fewer people to care for patients. The healthcare industry is still focused on profits and will seek to get as much out of workers as possible while paying them as little as possible. 

From the article, something one of the doctors wants patients to know is, “temper your expectations, as we’re short staffed, people’s stress levels are high.”

How Does Burnout Impact Patient Care?

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is a connection between overworked healthcare workers and a decrease in patient care. For example, increasing a nurse’s workload by one additional surgical patient resulted in a 7% increase in fatality rates for the patient. While adding 4 to 6 additional patients could increase the fatality rate by as much as 14%.  

Even doctors acknowledge that medical burnout can negatively impact patient care. According to a survey in the Annals of Surgery, doctors who reported making medical mistakes often attributed the errors to fatigue or stress. A more burned-out doctor can be more likely to make a medical mistake that could cause harm to the patient. 

What Is Causing Doctor Burnout?

There is no single common cause of doctor burnout. More often, there are several factors that contribute to stress and burnout and these problems often compound over time. The kinds of problems that a doctor could brush off 10 years ago may be too much to handle after all this time. However, there are some common problems that doctors point to that can increase stress and increase the risk of burnout, including: 

  • Productivity pressure
  • Medical insurance practices
  • Endless training
  • Maintaining electronic records
  • Problem patients
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Workplace violence
  • Pandemic response
  • Regulatory pressures
  • Evolving payment requirements
  • Changing care-delivery models
  • Gender inequality
  • Stress at home

Too Many Patients and Not Enough Time

The medical industry in the U.S. is driven by profit and volume. Hospitals and medical centers need to see as many patients as possible to maximize their operations. Unfortunately, it is the doctors that often bear this burden. Some patients need a lot of time to talk to a doctor, to understand their treatment options, discuss alternatives with the doctor, or learn about lifestyle changes. However, every second, the doctor may be thinking they don’t have time for this. 

The healthcare industry pushes doctors to see more patients per day and have shorter visits. Doctors can even be incentivized to increase their patient/day rates. However, these unrealistic schedules can erode patient care, require patients to come back because they did not get enough information the first time, and put additional stress on doctors. 

Problems Patients and Bad Reviews

Like restaurant review websites and rideshare reviews, doctors are also subject to patient satisfaction scores. If a doctor gets bad reviews from patients, it can impact their job and increase workplace pressures. However, a doctor should not be treated like a pizza restaurant or Uber driver. 

Patients now have access to a lot of medical information on the internet. They can look up a disease on a website, review the symptoms, and be sure that they can diagnose themselves. In some cases, patients walk in to see a doctor saying they want a certain medication even before the doctor has done an examination. In many cases, the patients are just wrong. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as much as 1/3rd of antibiotic use is not necessary or not appropriate. However, one of the reasons doctors overprescribe antibiotics is because of patient pressure. If a doctor says “no” to a patient’s request for medication or for not ordering a certain lab test, the patient could go home and give their doctor a one-star rating, harming the doctor’s professional reputation.

COVID-19 provided a lot of examples of difficult patients causing stress for doctors. There was a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines and many doctors spent time explaining basic science to patients who were worried about 5G towers and implanted microchips. 

For COVID treatment, a common horse deworming medication, Ivermectin, became a hot topic among non-medical popular figures. Despite the FDA warning against Ivermectin, many patients demanded this treatment from their doctors, refused medically-advised treatments, and even threatened medical staff for refusing their demands. 

Administrative Tasks Taking Up Too Much Time

According to Medscape, 60% of doctors polled attributed their burnout to administrative tasks. These tasks include filling out insurance and billing forms and responding to insurance and billing correspondence. Doctors find these tasks take up a lot of their time that could be spent in patient care. Doctors have to get prior authorization from insurance companies and comply with changing billing documentation requirements. Many doctors find they only have time to finish these administrative tasks after hours or on their days off. 

Electronic Health Records

Electronic health records (EHRs) were supposed to make medicine more consistent, reduce errors, and reduce stress for doctors. However, that has not been the case. EHR systems for doctors can be another cause of workplace stress. When combined with shorter patient visits and increased workloads, doctors have to put a lot of time into entering all the necessary information to update a patient’s charts. 

Gender Inequality in Medicine

Women have made a lot of progress in the medical field over the past century. Almost 1/3rd of all doctors, and about half of medical students, are women. Some areas of the medical field are still male-dominated and older men may still express discouragement and sexism toward female coworkers. 

However, a major factor that has not kept up with the changing workplace is pay grade. There is still about a 25% pay gap between men and women in medicine. Given doctor burnout, female doctors may express higher rates of burnout with the added factor that they know they are being paid less than male coworkers. 

Talk to a Malpractice Lawyer After an Injury

Whatever the cause of medical burnout, the patient may bear the weight of a burned-out doctor. When a doctor experiencing burnout cannot provide proper patient care or makes a medical mistake, it can result in serious injury to the patient. Medical errors caused by tired and overworked doctors can include misdiagnosis, diagnostic test misinterpretation, medication errors, or surgical errors. 

It may be difficult to know what was the root cause of your injury. The evidence of a medical error may be hidden in your medical records, hospital records, or even in your physical injuries. However, if the doctor made a medical error, you may have a medical malpractice claim. A medical malpractice claim can help you recover money to pay for your medical bills, lost wages, and compensate you for your pain and suffering. 

Call experienced medical malpractice attorneys who can look at your case, answer your questions, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim against a doctor or hospital after a medical error. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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