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Physician burnout growing problem

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Finding it more and more difficult to drag yourself out of bed to face a full schedule of patients?

tired doctor

Has managing your practice become increasingly stressful? Are you feeling overworked and under-appreciated?

You could be suffering from burnout. And you wouldn’t be alone.

An astounding 46 percent of nearly 20,000 physicians reported burnout in the biannual 2015 Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report – up from 39.8 percent in the 2013 survey. Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”

As you might expect, emergency room and critical care doctors most frequently suffered from burnout, with more than 50 percent reporting significant burnout symptoms. But half of physicians practicing family medicine, internal medicine and general surgery also reported burnout.

When asked to rate the severity of their burnout with “does not interfere with my life” ranking 1 and “so severe that I’m thinking of leaving medicine” represented by 7, doctors who practice nephrology had the highest rating at 4.3, followed closely by doctors specializing in cardiology, plastic surgery and urology. This finding was surprising because these specialists did not have the highest burnout percentages. Still, their burnout percentages ranged from 45 percent (nephrology and plastic surgery) to 48 percent (urology).

Of the physicians with a 50 percent burnout rate, practitioners of internal medicine rated the severity level at 4.18; family medicine at 4.17; and general surgery at 4.13.

The causes of burnout as reported by physicians were also rated on a 1-7 scale, with 1 meaning “not at all important” and 7 meaning “extremely important.” Having too many bureaucratic tasks was the highest-rated cause among the physicians participating in the survey (4.74).

They also rated spending too much time at work (3.99) and earning an inadequate income (3.71) as important contributors to burnout. The increasing computerization of their practices and the impact of the Affordable Care Act rated 3.68 and 3.65, respectively.

Other burnout causes rated by doctors included:

  • Feeling like just a cog in a wheel – 3.54
  • Too many difficult patients – 3.37
  • Too many patient appointments in a day – 3.34
  • Inability to provide patients with the quality of care they need – 3.22
  • Lack of professional fulfillment – 3.05
  • Difficult colleagues or staff – 2.9
  • Inability to keep up with current research and recommendations – 2.86
  • Compassion fatigue (from overexposure to death, violence, etc.) – 2.8
  • Difficult employer – 2.8

The Medscape survey also reveals differences in burnout rates between men and women and among different age groups.

A burnout rate of 43 percent among male physicians is high, but 51 percent of female physicians reported burnout. No definitive studies have revealed the reasons for higher burnout rates among women, although some speculate that work/life balance may be a factor.

The age group with the lowest burnout rate is the 66-and-over group, with only 22 percent admitting to the problem. The highest percentage of burnout is among the 46-55 age group (53 percent). The 36-45 age group also reported a high percentage of burnout – 51 percent. The group with the lowest percentage is 35 and under with a still-troubling burnout rate of 44 percent.

There seems to be little difference in preferred pastimes between physicians experiencing burnout and other physicians. It may be significant that, although “spending time with family” received the highest percentage – approximately 78 percent – for both groups’ favorite pastime in the current survey, the percentage has declined from 86 percent in the 2013 Medscape survey while burnout has increased.