No Easy Solution for Physician Burnout

Physician burnout – marked by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and decreased effectiveness – is on the rise in the United States, with up to 54 percent of doctors affected.

Some health-care executives blame the way medicine is practiced in the United States: Growing clerical demands can have doctors spending two hours on the computer for every one hour they spend seeing patients. “This really isn’t just about exercise and getting enough sleep and having a life outside the hospital,” said Tait Shanafelt, MD, a former Mayo Clinic researcher who became Stanford Medicine’s first chief physician wellness officer in September. “It has at least as much or more to do with the environment in which these folks are practicing.”

Dr. Shanafelt and other researchers have shown that burnout erodes job performance, increases medical errors, and leads doctors to leave a profession they once loved. Many affected doctors cut back their hours to cope, and a disturbing number commit suicide. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that more than 7 percent of nearly 7,000 doctors had considered suicide within the prior 12 months, compared with 4 percent of people in other occupations. About 400 doctors die by suicide each year.

Some hospitals are recognizing the toll of burnout on their operations (it can cost more than $1 million to replace a doctor who leaves because of burnout) and are taking action. Last year, Cleveland Clinic increased the number of nurse practitioners and other highly trained providers by 25 percent to handle more routine tasks. Atrius Health, Massachusetts’s largest independent physicians group, is simplifying electronic medical records, aiming to streamline data entry and cut mouse clicks by 1.5 million per year. According to Christine Sinsky, MD, vice president of professional satisfaction at the American Medical Association, it’s the burden of data entry that is really driving the burnout symptoms.

“We have to recognize the exacting toll that the first generation of electronic health records [has] had on physicians,” Dr. Sinsky told Reuters.

Source: Reuters, November 21, 2017.