What Is Physician Burnout?

Dr. Sadd is a colleague of mine that I’ve been worrying about for a while.  He comes to the office and constantly complains about EVERYTHING.  Dr. Sadd snaps at the office staff, makes negative comments about his patients, and has no tolerance at all when things don’t run smoothly.  He doesn’t really have “good days” and never seems to be happy.

Dr. Sadd is burned out.

What is physician burnout?  Burnout doesn’t just happen to doctors but is very prevalent in the medical field.  Because of this, research on burnout is often done on doctors and nurses and other medical professionals.

Physician burnout happens when the emotional and energetic toll of practicing medicine becomes overwhelming.  Burned out doctors and nurses are exhausted.  They are cynical and have a hard time connecting with others.  They doubt they are really making a difference.  Those of us in the health professions generally chose the field BECAUSE we want to make a difference.

If not addressed, burnout can drive doctors and nurses out of medicine.  Worse, burnout can cause depression and lead to suicide.  And physician burnout is very common.  Recent studies suggest that over half of American doctors are suffering from burnout.

What are the causes of physician burnout?  Recent changes in the American medical landscape with increased regulation and government reporting requirements are contributing to burnout.  We aren’t secretaries.  When we have to spend more and more time staring into the computer screen instead of interacting with patients, it adds more stress.

Doctors and nurses often feel they have less and less control over the way they practice medicine.  They often feel as though their training and expertise aren’t valued.   Checklists and paperwork, financial pressures and rules that don’t make sense all contribute.  If we don’t have enough support with the clerical side of things we can feel overwhelmed.

In addition, some doctors don’t have a good work-home integration.  Long work hours are hard on the family.  We neglect activities that we enjoy and put more and more energy into work.  Eventually the tank is empty and we have nothing more to give to our patients.

If you have lost the joy you used to take in your work, you might be burned out. You might be burned out if you are dreading going to work tomorrow,   If you find it really hard to finish tasks at work that used to be easy, or if you find yourself procrastinating, you might be burned out.

Unfortunately, if you are a doctor or nurse and you’re burned out, you might actually be dangerous.  Burnout increases the risk of medical errors.  In addition, patients who see a burned-out doctor are less satisfied with their care and may be more likely to sue if something goes wrong.  Interestingly, burned-out doctors seem to be more prone to car accidents.

What can you do about it if you are a doctor or nurse and you think you might be burned out?  First of all, be honest with yourself about the situation.  Talk with your supervisor and find out what resources are available at work.  Think about whether you’re taking steps to take care of yourself and enjoy your life NOW.  Too many of us focus on the future at the expense of the present!

After this process, it’s time to reconnect with the joy of your career.  Why did you choose a career in medicine in the first place?  What are the biggest stressors?  Are there ways to reduce the stress while maximizing the rewarding parts of your career?

Physician burnout (and nursing burnout) is a big problem in medicine and more and more organizations are recognizing it.  While your organization may offer tools to decrease burnout, it’s first up to you to recognize that you are losing your joy.

After all, the first step to fixing a problem is recognizing it exists in the first place.

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