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Surgeons: Take a Break

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, November 4, 2010

In this 24/7-work world, it seems we're working all the time. Everyone I talk to says the same thing. It's relentless.  For surgeons, there are added concerns; the exceedingly long shifts have a potential impact on patient care stemming from a physician's psychological trouble spots: burnout, depression, career dissatisfaction, and problems at home.

An extensive study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Mayo Clinic that surveyed more than 7,000 physicians shows a strong connection between increased hours and nighttime work, and a detrimental psychological impact on surgeons.

It's not surprising. And one answer seems to be pretty simple: reduce work hours.

But it never is simple, is it? Forced reduction in work hours may not be the solution for the busiest surgeons, according to authors of the study, published in the November issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. For one thing, surgeons don't like punching a time clock, they say.

In fact, the authors don't suggest many restrictions on work hours—perhaps, tweaking them a bit, and usually on terms of the physicians, themselves.  The best solution: identify the burnout potential before it becomes a full-fledged fire of concern.

In the study, a survey of surgeons working 80 hours per week, 50% met the criteria for burnout; 39% were screened positively for depression, and 11% said they made a significant medical error the previous three months. Moreover, one in five surgeons who worked more than 80 hours a week said he or she would not become a surgeon if they had a chance to do life's planning all over again.

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