June 29 2018

The Impact of Physician Burnout on Physicians, Patients, and Health Systems

The Impact of Physician Burnout on Physicians, Patients, and Health Systems


Increased rates of physician burnout among doctors in the US workforce are widely reported. Physician burnout can cause serious issues in an already over-wrought physician workforce, which is struggling to keep pace with patient demand.

"Physician burnout is bad on many levels," states Sharee Selah, Director of Recruitment Services at University of Maryland Medical System. "It's bad for doctors and their families, bad for staff and patients, and bad for organizations." She adds that, while most of today's healthcare leaders recognize the threat posed by physician burnout, many are uncertain as to the solution. 

"Several healthcare organizations such as ours, as well as others like Stanford and Mayo, are assembling a framework to begin to address this critical issue," Selah states.

According to MedEd. the three major symptoms of physician burn-out are:

  • Exhaustion - physical or mental fatigue to the point where a doctor may feel like he or she can't recover or ever get enough rest.
  • Depersonalization - "a failure to connect on a personal level" which eventually results in a lack of caring. This may also be referred to as compassion fatigue.
  • Decreased Efficacy - Doctors may start to feel like nothing they do can make an impact, and even start to think, "Why bother?"

In The Medicus Firm's soon-to-be-released 15th annual Physician Practice Preference & Relocation Survey, conducted in May 2018, physicians were asked to assess their symptoms of burn-out as listed above. 

Sadly, most physicians indicated that they have felt all of the above symptoms of physician burnout over the past year. However, exhaustion was the most prevalent of the three, with only 11% of the 2,219 respondents reporting that they have not felt physically or mentally exhausted over the past year. More than 9% said they have felt overwhelmingly and frequently exhausted.

About 80% of physicians reported having felt compassion fatigue, or depersonalization over the past year, including 1.5% of physicians reported feeling frequently or overwhelmingly so.

Lack of efficacy, while the least prevalent, was still felt by nearly 70% of physicians who doubted the meaning, quality, or impact of their work over the past year.

The Vast Impact of Burnout

The impact of physician burnout cannot be overstated. "Physician burnout is directly linked to an exhaustive list of undesirable consequences, she shared. These consequences include:

  • Lower patient satisfaction and care quality,
  • Higher medical error rates and malpractice risk,
  • Higher physician and staff turnover,
  • Physician alcohol and drug abuse and addiction,
  • Physician suicide.

"Using these consequences, we are able to build the business case to address physician burnout. It is multifaceted and includes costs associated with turnover and lost revenue associated with decreased productivity, as well as financial risk and threats to the organization’s long-term viability due to the relationship between burnout and lower quality of care, decreased patient satisfaction, and problems with patient safety," Selah concludes.

What is your organization doing to address the effects of physician burnout and the impact on your health system and patients? If physician burnout isn't yet on your radar of issues to be addressed within your organization, perhaps it should be soon.

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