Researchers find 'modest improvement' in physician burnout and call for continued efforts to address the problem.
The rate of physician burnout has eased over the past three years but remains at an alarming level, according to research published Friday.
Physician burnout, which includes emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, has been linked to decreases in patient safety, professionalism, and patient satisfaction. Electronic health records, which have increased administrative burdens on physicians and reduced the amount of time they spend with patients, have been cited as a primary cause of physician burnout.
The new research, which was published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found that the country's physician burnout rate dropped 10.5 percentage points, from 54.4% in 2014 to 43.9% in 2017. The rate had been 45.5% in 2011.
The improvement is a positive development, but physician burnout remains a vexing problem for the healthcare sector, the researchers wrote.
"The current prevalence of burnout among U.S. physicians appears to be lower than in 2014 and near 2011 levels. This trend is encouraging and suggests improvement is possible despite the numerous contributing factors and complexity of the problem," they wrote. "Although the improvement is good news, symptoms of burnout remain a pervasive problem, and its prevalence among physicians continues to be markedly higher than in the general U.S. working population."
The Mayo Clinic Proceedings research, which is based on data collected from more than 5,000 physicians, has several other key findings:
- Satisfaction with work-life balance was higher in 2017 (42.7%) than in 2014 (40.9%) but lower than it was in 2011 (48.5%).
- The depression rate has increased steadily among physicians: 38.2% in 2011, 39.8% in 2014, and 41.87% in 2017.
- Compared to the general workforce, physicians have a significantly higher rate of burnout: 36.4% of physicians reported emotional exhaustion compared to 24.8% for the general workforce, and 18.0% of physicians reported depersonalization compared to 13.5% of the general workforce.
The data shows that efforts to address physician burnout should remain a high priority for health systems, hospitals, and physician practices, the researchers wrote.
"Despite the modest improvement, our results indicate that burnout among U.S. physicians remains a major problem for the healthcare delivery system. In our view, the effort to improve healthcare professional well-being is an ongoing journey, analogous to efforts to improve quality and safety," they wrote. "A coordinated, systems-based approach at both the national and organizational levels that addresses the underlying drivers is the key to making progress."
The researchers identify five potential factors for the reduced physician burnout rate in 2017:
- 2014 may have been an outlier year, with high levels of hospital and medical group consolidation, several new regulations, and heightened administrative burdens.
- Physicians and their organizations may be adapting to the new practice environment.
- Physicians who have burned out may be leaving the profession.
- Large-scale initiatives to reduce physician burnout such as efforts at the American Medical Association and Association of American Medical Colleges may be taking hold.
- Initiatives designed to improve the efficiency of the practice environment such as team-based care could be easing pressure on physicians.
"Efforts to improve physician well-being have proven to be efficacious and should be recognized as potential contributors to the favorable trend," the researchers wrote.
Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care editor at HealthLeaders.
Physician burnout has been linked to decreases in patient safety, professionalism, and patient satisfaction.
Rates of depression among physicians have risen steadily since 2011.
Burnout is significantly more prevalent among physicians compared to the general workforce population.