physician burnout

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Physician Burnout: It’s Bad And Getting Worse, Survey Finds

More than half of U.S. physicians are now experiencing professional burnout, a survey found. (Eric/Flickr)

More than half of U.S. physicians are now experiencing professional burnout, a survey found. (Eric/Flickr)

A new study suggests that burnout among doctors is rampant and getting worse.

The study — a survey of nearly 7,000 physicians from all specialties, conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association — concludes that nearly half of doctors in the U.S. experience some level of burnout, defined by the authors as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, loss of meaning in work, feelings of ineffectiveness, and a tendency to view people as objects rather than as human beings.”

The long-term implications are profound: Beyond the personal toll, the researchers write, “…burnout appears to impact the quality of care physicians provide, and physician turnover, which [has] profound implications for the quality of the health care delivery system.”

For some context, I turned to someone who has been there: Diane Shannon is a doctor who left her medical career for sheer self-preservation and wrote about it for CommonHealth in 2013. She’s now writing a book on the topic (based, in part, on the overwhelming response to her post). Here’s her view of the new findings, via email:

When I hung up my white coat for the last time and left the practice of medicine, the term, “physician burnout” was unfamiliar. It wasn’t until I stumbled across research studies many years later, in my work as a freelance writer, that I finally understood the underlying reasons that I needed to walk away. Today, you can’t read about health care without seeing the term. Does the widespread use of the phrase reflect heightened awareness or a growing problem among doctors?

A recent study from the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association (AMA) physicians begins to answer this question. The three-year study of almost 7,000 found that last year 54 percent of physicians surveyed had at least one symptom of burnout, up from 45 percent just three years before. In the meantime, burnout among people working in other professions remained the same.

The researchers make several suggestions about addressing the growing problem among the physician workforce, including: conducting more research to find ways to reduce burnout, improving the work environment, and recognizing that self-help is not sufficient.

The suggestions reflect a growing recognition — and my personal experience — that individual solutions to burnout, such as stress reduction techniques, resilience training, and mindfulness practice, are effective but not sufficient for dealing with the widespread problem among physicians. As part of the background research for a book I’m co-authoring on how health care organizations can prevent burnout, I spoke last week with Wayne Sotile, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Physician Resilience. He likened the current situation in health care to a five-way intersection with physicians standing at the cross road and no one directing traffic. “It’s as if we’re asking physicians, ‘Please stop getting injured,’ instead of installing a traffic signal to fix the problem.” Continue reading

Why I Left Medicine: A Burnt-Out Doctor’s Decision To Quit

By Diane Shannon
Guest Contributor

When I introduce myself as a physician who left clinical practice, non-physicians ask me why I left. They’re generally intrigued that someone who sacrificed many years and many dollars for medical training would then change her mind. But physicians, almost universally, never ask me why I left. Instead, they ask me how. They call and email me with logistical questions, wanting to learn the secret of how I managed the transition out of clinical medicine (read “escape”).

Earlier this month I attended a conference on physician well-being at the Massachusetts Medical Society where I heard an alarming statistic: the suicide rate among women physicians is more than two times that of women in the general population.

Diane Shannon, plagued by constant worry about patients, and fear of medical errors, gave up her career as a physician. (Courtesy)

Dr. Diane Shannon — plagued by constant worry about her patients and fear of medical errors — walked away from a career as a physician. (Courtesy)

It may be dramatic and self-serving to frame my career change as a way to avoid suicide, but I can attest that medicine was not conducive to my health. As an internist, working in adult outpatient clinics around Boston, I had trouble leaving my work at work. I’d go for a run and spend the entire 30 minutes wondering if I’d ordered the right diagnostic test. I suffered from chronic early morning wakening, even on my weekends off. I startled easily. I found it impossible to relax. I worried constantly that I’d make a mistake, like ordering the wrong dosage of a medication, or that a system flaw, like an abnormal lab report getting overlooked, would harm a patient. I no longer remembered the joy I’d felt when I first began medical school, and I couldn’t imagine surviving life as a doctor.

I no longer believe it was weakness or selfishness that led me to abandon clinical practice. I believe it was self-preservation. I knew I didn’t have the stamina and single-mindedness to try to provide high-quality, compassionate care within the existing environment. Perhaps, due to temperament or timing, I was less immune than others to the stresses of practicing medicine in a health care system that often seemed blind to humanness, both mine and my patients’.

That’s not to say that I don’t miss practicing medicine. I do. I miss engaging in meaningful interactions and being of service, reassuring an elderly woman that we could make her emphysema easier to endure, bearing witness to a cancer patient’s grace in the face of death, supporting a college student facing an unexpected pregnancy. I miss spending my days in deeply meaningful work. Continue reading