Physician Burnout by Specialty: What It Is and How to Avoid It
- A 2021 Medscape survey of physician burnout and suicide found that 42% of all physicians felt burned out.
- A 2020 Medical Economics survey found that 91% of doctors experienced burnout related to their work at some time in their careers, and 71% said they felt burned out at the time of the survey.
- According to the Medical Economics survey, the main causes of physician burnout are too much paperwork and regulations (cited by 31% of physicians), poor work-life balance/long working hours (15%), and the COVID-19 pandemic (12%).
Physician burnout broken down by specialty
- Economic inequality and social justice issues affect the culture in hospitals and other healthcare institutions across the U.S.
- At the organization level, administrative burdens and operational inefficiencies that exacerbate economic disparities and social injustice drive physician burnout.
- At the personal level, physicians struggle to balance their work lives with their family obligations and personal needs.
- In the 2021 Medscape survey, the specialties reporting the highest levels of physician burnout were critical care, rheumatology, and infectious diseases.
- This is a shift from the 2020 Medscape survey, where the specialties reporting the highest levels of burnout were urology, neurology, nephrology, endocrinology, and family medicine.
- Healthcare organizations: 47%
- Outpatient clinics: 46%
- Office-based multispecialty group practice: 44%
- Nonhospital academic, research, government, or military: 42%
- Hospital: 40%
- Office-based single-specialty group practice: 40%
- Office-based solo practice: 40%
The impact of stressful events on physician burnout rates
- Fear of exposure to COVID-19 caused personal and familial stress among the oncologists interviewed.
- Many of the oncologists were concerned that the pandemic would disrupt patient care, interrupt education and research efforts, and hurt the financial health of their practice.
- Several of the physicians considered retiring early or working part time.
Common causes of physician burnout among medical specialties
- Emergency medicine
- General surgery
- Nonclinical burdens, such as billing, insurance, documentation, and workplace politics
- Inefficient electronic health records (EHRs) and lack of administrative support
- Loss of autonomy and control
- Inflexibility in work environments
- Deteriorating patient-physician relationships, possibly causing a loss of meaning in the work
What is physician burnout?
- External factors include demanding work; time pressures; contradictory instructions; lack of freedom to make decisions; lack of organizational influence; poor internal communication; pressure from superiors; increasing responsibilities; poor teamwork; problematic rules and policies; and a lack of staffing, funding, and other resources.
- Internal factors include high self-expectations that border on idealism, perfectionism, the need for recognition, a drive to please others, suppressing their own needs, thinking of themselves as irreplaceable, overestimating their ability to overcome challenges, substituting their work for their social life, and failing to seek meaningful activities outside of work.
Physician burnout definition
- It results from a failure to manage chronic workplace stress.
- It causes feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion.
- It leads to physicians taking a negative and cynical view of their work and profession.
- It makes physicians less effective in their work.
- The honeymoon phase is characterized by enthusiasm.
- At the onset of excessive stress, stagnation sets in as work becomes the physician’s sole focus at the expense of family, social life, and personal priorities.
- Over time, the physician begins to experience chronic stress, which leads to feelings of frustration, a perception of failure, and a sense of powerlessness.
- Physicians begin to believe that their efforts are wasted and that they’re not sufficiently recognized, causing apathy, despair, and disillusionment.
- Finally, physicians come to feel trapped, which leads to habitual burnout and a sense of resignation and indifference toward their work.
Resources on physician burnout by specialty
- National Institute for Health Care Management, Physician Burnout & Moral Injury: The Hidden Health Care Crisis — The infographic presents a range of statistics relating to physician burnout, including the physician specialties that are most susceptible to the condition.
- Association of American Medical Colleges, Well-Being in Academic Medicine — Dozens of links to articles and other resources that describe how to recognize and prevent burnout in medical faculty members, clinicians, researchers, residents, and others involved in academic medicine.
Physician burnout statistics by specialty
- A study reported in JAMA found that medical school students who experience mistreatment and have an unfavorable perception of the learning environment are more likely to experience high levels of exhaustion and disengagement, lower levels of empathy, and career regret than students who have a positive medical school experience.
- AMA’s research during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 27% of physician residents experienced high levels of stress, 53.47% of which they attributed to fear of exposure to the virus. In addition, 30% of residents said they felt anxious and overworked during the pandemic, and 50.5% had symptoms of burnout.
- Growing shortages in physician specialties contribute to burnout and poor patient outcomes. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) forecasts that demand for surgical specialists will exceed supply by between 17,100 and 28,700 surgeons by 2033. The projected shortage of all nonprimary care specialty physicians is between 33,700 and 86,700 by 2033.
How various practice areas are affected by physician burnout
- Shortage of PPE
- 5% mortality rate of COVID patients admitted to ICUs
- Concerns for their personal safety
- Feeling unable to provide patients with the emotional support they need
Resources providing physician burnout statistics
- Golden Source Consultants, Clinical Wellness Survey Resources for 2021 — Statistics and resources on the impact of physician burnout on the likelihood of malpractice and on the quality of care patients receive.
- Frontiers in Public Health, “Prioritizing the Mental Health and Well-Being of Healthcare Workers: An Urgent Global Public Health Priority” — A survey of research on burnout among physicians and other healthcare workers before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physician burnout treatment methods
- Standardize: The most efficient way to run a healthcare operation is by making layouts, offices, and equipment arrangements as close to identical as possible. This reduces the amount of time physicians have to spend thinking about where things are as they move from area to area.
- Eliminate redundancies: The processes that physicians rely on for completing records, submitting orders, and receiving information should be performed consistently. For example, lab results that are delivered by text may not need to be sent by email as well.
- Automate EHRs: The medical data that physicians need to enter into EHRs should be consolidated and presented in a way that makes all necessary information accessible in a single location.
- Reduce interruptions: All members of the physician’s medical team need to understand what conditions warrant an interruption. Physicians should be allowed to block out some time with no interruptions to complete necessary tasks that require their full attention.
Helping physicians balance work and personal lives
- Purpose: As often as possible, physicians should take part in the activities that remind them why they became doctors, such as taking time to connect with patients and motivating them to take steps to improve their health.
- Time management: Physicians should always have short- and long-term goals in mind, make plans, and avoid activities that take up too much of their time. They can create templates for EHRs, avoid technology disruptions, and use mobile devices to complete paperwork while in transit.
- Priorities: Many workdays in physicians’ lives can feel like nonstop triage, but they need to always stay focused on the most important thing at each moment; often it’s not what others believe is most important. They need to filter out the many distractions that prevent attention being spent on what needs to be done right now.
- Reassessment: Some life transitions are planned, and others are unexpected, but both types are opportunities to reconsider goals and plans and reset when necessary. A physician’s work-life balance is always in motion and often requires work adjustments.
Programs to help physicians overcome work-related stress
- Peer-to-peer programs: The AMA reports that being able to connect with other physicians offers a nonjudgmental environment free of stigma and typically outside of the processes of the physician’s own institution. Discussing burnout with a peer helps physicians validate their emotions and experiences and understand that what they’re feeling is normal.
- Pre-burnout stress management programs: Routine mental health screening provides physicians with an opportunity to gauge their own stress levels. Screenings make it easier for physicians to find out about burnout-reducing resources available to them.
- Outside programs: The Physician Well-Being and Burnout Initiative from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) offers interventions for physician burnout that serve the needs of individuals and organizations. It also provides links to online resources for physicians with depression and addictions.
Resources for identifying and overcoming physician burnout
- National Academy of Medicine, Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience — A program intended to raise awareness of burnout, anxiety, and depression among physicians and other healthcare professionals and to improve patient care by “caring for caregivers.”
- AMN Healthcare, “The Mental Health Impacts of Healthcare Burnout” — A white paper proposing a new approach to mental health among physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers that emphasizes mindfulness and meditation.