Physician Burnout: Definition, Symptoms, Causes & Solutions

by
Raven Cobb
Clearstep Team

Physician burnout has become a hot-button topic in the post-pandemic era with healthcare systems with over half of health workers surveyed reporting burnout amid the pandemic.

We’ll define physician burnout, discuss causes and symptoms, and how it impacts healthcare systems today.

Related: Pushing the Boundaries of Virtual Care

What is Physician Burnout?

Physician burnout is a long-term reaction to stress that causes physicians to feel like they lack a sense of personal accomplishment, are depersonalized, and feel emotionally exhausted. 

Physician burnout can be linked directly to several negative consequences, including:

  • Higher Physician Turnover Rates
  • Lower Quality of Patient Care and Satisfaction
  • Higher Risk of Malpractice
  • Higher Rates of Medical Errors
  • Physician Drug and Alcohol Addiction and Abuse
  • Physician Suicide

A good analogy for looking at physician burnout is by thinking about a rechargeable battery, or batteries. 

We all have three types of energy that we use daily and need to be recharged: physical, emotional, and spiritual. 

  • Physical Energy - Physicians need to take care of their bodies and recharge their physical energy by resting, exercising, and eating well. 
  • Emotional Energy - Physicians need to spend quality time with their friends and loved ones to help recharge their emotional energy. 
  • Spiritual Energy - The best way for physicians to recharge their spiritual energy is by reconnecting with their sense of purpose. By asking themselves why did they become a physician? 

When you don’t recharge the batteries for each energy, you’ll eventually run them down entirely.

What Causes Physician Burnout?

Many factors cause physician burnout over time. Let’s take a look at the more common causes of physician burnout. 

Administrative Tasks

Physicians spend the majority of their time every day doing administrative work, not spending clinical time with their patients, where they are needed most 

The guidelines and requirements for moving to a value-based care model add more work to a physician’s daily workload. That’s not including additional guidelines for incentive programs like those with Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and the strict regulations included in the Health Insurance and Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

According to a recent study, the result is that for every hour of clinical time physicians spend with patients, they spend an additional two performing clerical and administrative tasks

Poor Work-Life Balance

It’s hard for physicians to take care of their patients if they can’t care for themselves. The stress and long hours that physicians work, make it challenging for them to find the time away from work to recharge their physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries.

A physician typically works 40-60 hours weekly, including nights and weekends. Unfortunately, these hours can make spending quality time connecting with friends and family or participating in pleasurable hobbies difficult. 

Technology

The use of technology by healthcare systems has increased exponentially in recent years. 

A 2019 study by the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA) has some startling information on how health information technology (HIT) and electronic health record systems (EHR) contribute to physician burnout.

  • Physicians surveyed who spend significant time on EHRs had almost twice the higher chance of burnout.
  • Close to 70% of respondents reported HIT-related stress, which was especially high among primary care physicians.
  • Physicians who reported having inadequate time to do their documentation were almost three times as likely to suffer burnout.

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Patient Care

Because many physicians deal with sick, hurt, dying people and their families daily, it is an incredibly stressful job. Physicians have roles that require a lot of responsibility, high stress, and sometimes little control over the outcome.

Physicians have to be emotionally available to their patients and their families, and constantly using empathy in this manner can be exhausting. 

Doctor Shaking Hands with Patient

Medical School Conditioning

Several directives are ingrained into physicians over the seven-plus years of their medical education. 

One of the directives that physicians are trained in is that the patient comes first. Always. While this seems to be a healthy and necessary attitude when working with patients, this practice can have negative consequences if a physician cannot find an off switch when they are not with patients.

Another directive is never to show weakness. A physician is trained not to be emotionally or physically tired when working grueling hours in their residency. They must be both a workaholic and a superhero and keep grinding even when they might be completely exhausted. 

Immediate Supervisors

There’s a common saying that most people don’t quit their jobs; they quit their bosses. This adage holds for physicians as well.

A study by the NIH showed that the leadership qualities of the supervisors of physicians impacted both the job satisfaction and personal well-being of the individual physicians working in health care systems. 

Physicians who have to report to an immediate supervisor who lacks the necessary experience or skills put additional stress on them.

Related: Value-Based Care: Is this the Future of Healthcare?

The Symptoms of Physician Burnout

Symptoms of physician burnout can manifest over weeks, months, and even years. Many signs are so subtle that patients and colleagues might not notice them immediately.

Physical Exhaustion

One of the first symptoms and most persistent symptoms of physician burnout is exhaustion. 

Because many physicians are trained in their residencies to work through exhaustion, it can be hard to discern between just being tired and working themselves to exhaustion.   

Symptoms of exhaustion include being chronically tired, headaches, dizziness, slow reflexes, and impaired judgment and decision-making.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common types of mental illness in the United States. Common symptoms of anxiety are being irritable, restless, easily fatigued, and having problems concentrating.

Emotional Exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion is a persisting state of feeling drained and worn out from the accumulated stresses of our work and personal lives. 

Common symptoms of emotional exhaustion include a lack of motivation, irritability, apathy, and feelings of hopelessness.

Poor Sleep

Poor sleep can impact the body in several ways. Symptoms include reduced memory, slowed thinking, a lack of energy, mood changes, and an increase in accidents. 

Depression

The symptoms of depression include all of the symptoms above. In addition, depression can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, thoughts of death, and suicide. 

Would you like to learn more about how Clearstep helps healthcare systems reduce physician burnout? Click here to learn more about Clearstep!

Doctor With Surgical Instrument

Physician Burnout is a Problem That Healthcare Systems Need to Prioritize 

Working long hours with patients and their families and dealing with an increasing amount of administrative tasks increases the risk of physician burnout. 

Physicians need to be able to recharge their physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries regularly to reduce the risk of burnout.

Healthcare systems can help physicians and other staff by using technologies that can reduce scheduling and administrative burdens from their staff, like Clearstep’s Smart Care Routing™. 

Ensure that physicians have ample time after patients to complete their medical charting and prepare for the next patient. This will reduce physician stress and improve patient outcomes simultaneously.

Symptoms like physical and emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and depression are signs that a physician might be getting burned out. 

Healthcare systems must watch for these symptoms in their physicians as they perform their daily duties. 

It’s easier to avoid burnout before it reaches a critical point than after it happens.

Related: Healthcare Insights: The Definitive 2022 Edition

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