Burnout affects all physicians; from medical students, residents and fellows, to young physicians and those in practice for several years. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed physicians to the max and accelerated burnout.
Physicians have long experienced high levels of stress and burnout, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. While helping their patients fight for their lives, many physicians and other health care professionals are coping with their own trauma of losing patients and colleagues and fear for their own health and safety. No wonder physician burnout has become an epidemic within an epidemic.
Among recent surveys, nearly three-quarters of physicians age 25-54 and two-thirds of those age 55-73 said burnout has had a negative effect on their lives. Burnout was described as long-term, unresolved job-related stress leading to exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment. About 51% of women physicians said they were burned out, compared with 36% of men – a greater disparity than usual, a recent Medscape report noted.
For medical students it can be debt, lack of personal time and flexibility and huge amounts to learn. For residents and fellows it can be the stress of putting knowledge into practice, learning new skills, added responsibility, and finalizing career paths. And for young physicians and for those practicing for years it can be hours of needless documentation, electronic health records (EHR) that are unusable and unfriendly, prior authorization, MIPS requirements and set-up costs, insurance reimbursement and Medicare payroll cuts.
The highest-ranked specialties for burnout these past couple of years were critical care (with the highest burnout rates), rheumatology, infectious diseases, urology, and pulmonary medicine. However, suicidal thoughts were most common among OB/GYN, orthopedics, otolaryngology, plastic surgery, and diabetes specialists.
One positive step in addressing burnout, is the recent signing by President Biden of the Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act (HR1667) into law. This bill helps promote mental and behavioral health among those working on the frontlines. It also supports suicide and burnout prevention training programs and increases awareness and education about suicide and mental health concerns among health care professionals. The AMA actively supported passage of HR1667.
Addressing burnout and mental health continues to be a priority for all of us, including the AMA. The AMA has done research and developed resources that prioritize well-being to help physicians with many practical tools that give health care organizations a way to assess and improve burnout at the system level and developed targeted solutions to support physician well-being. The AMA, through its advocacy divisions, has strongly advocated against administrative burdens that add to your workload and stop you from caring for your patients and has developed practice management modules to help address daily stress points.
With so many suffering from physician burnout, it is important for doctors to understand they are not alone in how they are feeling. Even physicians who have achieved the heights of the profession have experienced burnout at some point in their careers.
Post-pandemic, we, the medical community, including the AMA, have an opportunity to rethink how best to support physicians so that we can start to see meaningful reductions in burnout, depression and suicide rates. For example, time is perhaps one of the most valuable commodities for medical residents, fellows and students. Giving a few hours back per week—time which they can have to themselves—may lead to decreased burnout and increased well-being.
There is much, much more we need to do. But as a start, let’s all feel free to ask, “Are you doing okay? How can I help?”