Battling Physician Burnout

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, November 6, 2008

Many of the trends within the physician workforce in recent years—a growing emphasis on work-life balance, a shift toward employment, a rejection of traditional ED call coverage models, and the growing shortage—are often attributed to generational differences and other consequences of a changing physician demographic.

But there's another, more sinister, force driving physician work habits: Physician burnout.

It's not just that some physicians are tired or overworked. In many cases, they are so chronically stressed that it affects their attitude about the healthcare system, their professional performance, and their personal lives.

And it's problematic at every level. The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that found half of medical students are burned out, and 11% have considered suicide within the past year. Another recent study found widespread resident physician burnout and concluded that few interventions currently exist to remedy the problem.

With so many of today's physicians burned out by the time they make it out of training, who can blame them for emphasizing quality of life as much as compensation when looking for a practice opportunity? This is, in part, why we're seeing a renewed interest in employment and why specialties like dermatology, which offer both high pay and a stable work schedule, are among the most popular for new physicians.

Sure, there's the argument that such rigorous training helps thin the herd so that we emerge with the best and most dedicated physician workforce possible.

But medical school dropout is relatively low, and that becomes a moot argument when weighed against the many consequences of widespread burnout.

Studies have found a correlation between medical errors and burnout, as well as a decrease in levels of empathy toward patients. And physicians have traditionally had higher rates of divorce and suicide than the general public. It is a major problem, not just for physicians, but for the overall healthcare system that depends so heavily on their performance.

So is there any way to fix this problem?

Perhaps that's just the nature of the beast. Medicine is an intensive discipline, and stress is for the most part unavoidable, particularly when the overall healthcare system is strained by physician shortages and reimbursement cuts.

Yet, it doesn't bode well when doctors describe medical school as "the lowest point in terms of self esteem." There are ways to at least dampen the negative effects, and they begin with recognizing the seriousness of the problem.

Elyas Bakhtiari is a managing editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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