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Analysis

Annual Physician Burnout Costs Estimated at $4.6 Billion

By Christopher Cheney  
   May 30, 2019

Researchers call physician turnover costs and lost productivity a 'substantial economic burden.'

The annual cost of physician burnout is conservatively estimated at $4.6 billion, research published this week shows.

A national survey conducted in 2014 found that 54% of physicians were experiencing burnout symptoms and prevalence of physician burnout was twice as high as in the general population. Other studies have associated burned-out physicians with higher rates of self-reported medical errors and poorer clinical outcomes.

The study published this week in Annals of Internal Medicine is one of the first attempts to estimate the cost of physician burnout to health systems, hospitals, and physician practices, the researchers wrote.

"Our study provides tools to evaluate the economic dimension of this problem. Together with previous evidence that burnout can be reduced effectively with moderate levels of investment, our results suggest that a strong financial basis exists for organizations to invest in remediating physician burnout."

The $4.6 billion national annual cost of physician burnout was calculated based on two elements:

1. Physician turnover:  The researchers tried to account for two components of the cost associated with burned-out doctors leaving their jobs. The first component was the cost linked to physician replacement for search expenses, hiring, and new physician startup. The second cost was lost income from open physician positions.

2. Reduced clinical hours: To approximate the cost of physicians lowering their clinical hours, the net cost of turnover was adjusted by a fraction representing the average percentage difference in weekly work hours between physicians who were burned-out and physicians who were not burned out.

The researchers also estimated the annual cost of physician burnout at the organizational level. They found the costs linked to turnover and reduced clinical hours is about $7,600 per employed physician.

Burnout cost likely more than $4.6B
 

The $4.6 billion cost estimate almost certainly understates the economic burden of physician burnout, the researchers wrote. "Our analysis is conservative, omitting other burnout-related costs that are difficult to quantify."

The analysis does not account for several aspects of physician burnout that have financial consequences:

  • Physician burnout has been linked to reduced quality of care, lower patient satisfaction, and malpractice lawsuits
     
  • Some of the "friction costs" associated with replacing physicians were unaccounted such as the impact on other care team members
     
  • At the organizational level, the cost estimate for physician burnout does not account for patients who leave a practice after their burned-out doctor departs
     
  • The cost estimate does not include indirect revenue losses associated with a physician vacancy such as diagnostic tests and procedures

"Using data informed by the current state of research, our conservative analyses suggest that on a national scale, a substantial economic burden is associated with physician burnout in the United States," the researchers wrote.

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Physician burnout has been associated with a range of negative consequences, including increased medical errors and poorer clinical outcomes.

The prevalence of physician burnout is about twice as high as in the general population.

As harder-to-quantify costs of physician burnout are calculated, the total annual cost is expected to be higher than $4.6 billion.

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