Practice Management: How Physician Burnout Affects Health Care – And What Physicians Can Do To Avoid It

Editor’s Note: This article reprinted courtesy of HealtheCareers, the proprietors of ACOG’s ‘Career Connection’ job board. Find your next ob-gyn job on the ACOG Career Connection today!

It’s an often-noted irony that those tasked with caring for the masses are frequently those most in need of care themselves. In fact, studies show that physicians are about 10 percent more likely to suffer from burnout than other U.S. workers.

Physicians work long, often stressful hours, and the job can take its toll in the form of anxiety, depression, and other mental and physical health issues. When this happens, patient care can deteriorate, and physicians often leave their current positions – or even the health care profession entirely.

Burnout is defined as loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. At a time when the demand for physicians is reaching an all-time high, it’s imperative that physicians do everything in their power to avoid letting burnout rob the health care system of its most qualified practitioners.

Physician Burnout on the Rise


A 2015 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings detailed physician burnout over a span of years, from 2011 to 2014. In the 2014 survey, 54.4 percent of physicians reported burnout, compared to 45.5 percent in 2011, showing that burnout is clearly on the rise among America’s physicians. In a similar study, Medscape surveyed nearly 16,000 U.S. physicians for its 2016 Physician Lifestyle Report, providing a detailed look at how burnout may affect physicians’ lifestyle choices and experiences.

The results vary by specialty, with the highest reports of burnout coming from physicians specializing in:

  • Critical care (55 percent)
  • Urology (55 percent)
  • Emergency medicine (55 percent)
  • Family medicine (54 percent)
  • Internal medicine (54 percent)
  • Pediatrics (53 percent)
  • Surgery (51 percent
  • OB/GYN (51 percent)
  • Neurology (51 percent)
  • Radiology (50 percent)
  • Cardiology (50 percent)
  • Anesthesiology (50 percent)


All of the above percentages reflect an increase in burnout rates compared to 2015 numbers. The lowest rates of burnout were in psychiatry and mental health (40 percent), ophthalmology (41 percent), and diabetes and endocrinology (41 percent).

Gender and age may also play a role, with women reporting a higher incidence of burnout (55 percent) than their male counterparts (46 percent), and rates of burnout peaking among physicians aged 36-55.

Causes of Physician Burnout

What’s causing America’s physicians so much stress? Medscape’s survey found the top causes of physician burnout to be:

  1. Too many bureaucratic tasks
  2. Spending too many hours at work
  3. Increasing computerization of practice
  4. Income not high enough


Another study found that primary care physicians with the highest number of electronic medical record functions experienced higher levels of stress than those with fewer.

Ramifications of Physician Burnout

Everyone suffers when physicians suffer. Burnout has been shown to negatively affect patient care, and many of the factors that lead to burnout are also associated with a higher likelihood of physicians leaving their practice. Suicide rates are higher for physicians than for the general population, and studies indicate that job stress is a contributing factor.

Burnout can also negatively affect physician health. In Medscape's 2015 physician survey, only 54 percent of burned-out physicians reported having very good to excellent health compared with 70 percent of their non–burned-out colleagues. The report also showed that burned out physicians are seven percent more likely to report being overweight or obese.

Based on these findings, is it any surprise that physicians feel they must retire, close their practice, or even change careers to avoid burnout?

Combating Physician Burnout


One of the best ways for physicians to combat burnout is by focusing their time and energy outside of work on activities they enjoy. Topping the list of physicians’ favorite pastimes?

  1. Spending time with family
  2. Travel
  3. Exercise/physical activity
  4. Reading
  5. Cultural events (such as going to the movies, the theater, museums)
  6. Food and wine
  7. Surfing the web
  8. Gardening
  9. Music and visual arts like photography and painting


It might sound counterintuitive to a physician who’s already strapped for free time, but giving back can also ease the symptoms of burnout. In Medscape’s 2015 survey, physicians who spent time volunteering – whether for their church, their kids’ school or doing pro-bono work for a local clinic – were less likely to report feelings of burnout.

Finding time to devote to these activities can prove challenging when paired with a demanding work schedule. That’s why time off is also vital; Medscape found that physicians who took more than two weeks of vacation time each year fared much better in terms of burnout than their peers who took less than two weeks.

Making a Change


Of course, sometimes the problem really is with a physician’s specific situation. If you find yourself in a position with unreasonable working hours or patient load, or the EHR system is just too cumbersome, or if you find yourself looking at more paperwork than patients, then a job change might be in order to avoid burning out.

If you’re feeling burned out (or just ready to make a change), look for your next ob-gyn job on the ACOG Career Connection
today.

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