Physician Burnout: What You Can Do For Yourself or a Colleague

Physician Burnout: What You Can Do For Yourself or a Colleague

Created on: Monday, February 29, 2016
Author: Peter MIchaud

I’m burned out. Toast. Stressed out. Fried. Totally spent. Exhausted. Drained. I just don’t care anymore. What’s the use? There are plenty of ways to express the phenomenon of burnout, a physical or mental collapse caused by prolonged overwork, frustration, or stress.

The AMA reports physician burnout is the number one problem facing practicing physicians today. The Mayo Clinic reports, “From 2011 to 2014 physician burnout rates in US physicians increased AND the gap between physician burnout rates and burnout rates in the normal population widened.” Thirty-nine percent of physicians in the study screened positive for depression, and the rate of suicidal ideation among physicians jumped from 4.0 - 7.2 percent. Fifty-four percent reported at least one symptom of burnout, compared to 29 percent of the general population.

Burnout can lead to practice and personal issues such as increased errors; reduced empathy for patients; reduced patient satisfaction; increased physician desire to leave practice; and substance abuse. Signs of burnout may include physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (cynicism, sarcasm, detachment from patients, and an overall “bad attitude”), reduced sense of personal accomplishment or value in one’s work, and lack of self-care.

It’s no secret that the practice of medicine is becoming increasingly stressful. Workload is increasing. Physicians are feeling less in control of their workplaces, and workplaces are becoming increasingly chaotic. Time and money pressures abound. Less time can be spent on the more meaningful aspects of practice as more and more time must be spent on reporting and billing issues, with “third party interference” being a major cause of physician frustration. Many doctors say electronic medical records will improve patient care, but the currently available packages are difficult to use and interfere with patient care more than they help. “Meaningful use” regulations are seen as having negative effects on physician satisfaction. Two physician families double the work stresses that come home, in spite of an increased level of understanding from a partner who is experiencing the same issues. For newer physicians, student debt ranks high on the list of stressors.

How can one cope with these conditions before burning out? Coping mechanisms may include control over self and environment, non-medical activity (particularly activities that are physical or pleasingly interpersonal). Sleep and adequate nutrition, too, may be needed to recharge spent energy levels. Perhaps most important, increasing professional fulfilment can go a long way toward

Resilient people seem to suffer less from burnout and be better able to deal with the stressors of work and life. Resilience is a capacity to recover from difficulties, the ability to spring back from or resist the effects of stress and overwork. Resilience generally improves with age as we are exposed to challenges and learn to deal with life’s problems. One can also deliberately enhance resilience by learning selfmanagement skills and connecting with the meaning and purpose in one’s life. The AMA has published a series of online modules called STEPSforward ( They provide strategies to revitalize practice and improve patient care…and self-care, too. To further reduce your stress, CME credit is available.

Here in Maine we have the Medical Professionals’ Health Program A proactive program, the MPHP assists physicians and other health care professionals with confidential and compassionate assistance and advocacy. It can be particularly helpful to medical professionals who are having or who are concerned about the possibility of having a substance use problem.

Whether you’re a medical student, a resident, or a long-time physician, it’s never too early or too late to find new ways to improve your life and your practice and prevent burnout. You’re worth it!


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