The Root of Physician Burnout

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Incentivizing with money is a self-fulfilling prophecy of cynicism. We must promote compassion, courage, and wisdom among our physicians before we "make a sordid business of this high and sacred calling."

olsermain2.jpg Sir William Osler (Sam Blackman/Flickr)

A colleague of mine in primary care medicine has decided to leave the practice of medicine. She is very well trained, has impeccable professional credentials, and works in a thriving practice. Over the past several years, however, she has noticed an unrelenting decline in the sense of fulfillment she derives from her work. She feels increasingly frustrated with what she calls the "bureaucratization" of medicine, and resents spending "more time filling out forms than caring for patients." My colleague is suffering from what is commonly described as burnout.

Last week Dr. Elaine Shattner described a new report in the Archives of Internal Medicine that indicates that rates of burnout among U.S. physicians significantly exceed those of the general population. This is a very serious issue with effects that will ripple throughout society, and it warrants widespread, earnest attention. The solution, though, does not lie in incentivizing physicians with money or restructuring systems to minimize stress on physicians -- it lies in finding earnest professional fulfillment.

Medicine is not a job. It is not even a career. At its heart, medicine is a calling.

According to psychologists, signs of burnout include decreased enthusiasm for work, growing cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. As the name implies, individuals suffering from burnout feel as though a fire that once burned inside them has dwindled, and perhaps even been entirely extinguished. In many cases, they report a sense of having "run out of fuel," and like my colleague, feel as though they "have nothing left."

Of nearly 7,300 physicians who participated in the Archives of Internal Medicine's national survey, 46% reported at least one symptom of burnout, and the overall rate of burnout among physicians was 38%, as opposed to 28% among other US workers. The highest rates of burnout were reported among primary care physicians, including family physicians, general internists and emergency medicine physicians.

Why should rates of burnout be higher among physicians? For one thing, physicians tend to work longer hours than other workers, on average about 10 more hours per week. Moreover, striking an appropriate work-life balance appears to be a bigger challenge for physicians, in part because they often tend to keep work and personal life more separated than other workers. The authors of the study speculate that such a high rate of burnout could only result from system-wide issues in medicine, as opposed to the personal susceptibilities of a few physicians.

The issue of physician burnout is important. As the US population grows and ages, the number of physicians needed to care for them increases. When burnout leads physicians to reduce or cease their practice altogether, patient access to medical care is diminished. Moreover, burnt-out physicians are likely to be less productive, make more mistakes, and generally deliver a lower quality of care than their fully engaged colleagues. Finally, physicians are human beings too, and their suffering should summon no less compassion and concern than anyone else's.

Physicians react to burnout in a number of ways. Some, like my colleague, withdraw from their practices, reducing their workloads or leaving the practice of medicine entirely. Others become less engaged with their patients and the profession and suffer a decline in the quality of their work. Still others turn to unhealthy and even self-destructive habits, such as alcoholism, excessive or inappropriate use of prescription drugs, and even illicit substances. Some consider suicide. Others may turn to colleagues, friends, or family for help, or seek professional counseling.

A de-professionalized physician is inevitably a demoralized and burnt-out one.

Unfortunately, individuals and organizations often respond to burnout by recommending coping strategies focusing on the reduction of stress. The rationale for this approach is straightforward: individuals suffering from burnout seem to be overly stressed. They feel overworked, excessively scrutinized, or overburdened with unnecessary or unfulfilling tasks. To combat burnout, some suppose, we need only reduce such stressors, by cutting back on working hours, relaxing intrusive oversight, and finding ways to lift the burden of "busywork" from the shoulders of physicians.

While useful in some respects, the stress-reduction approach addresses only the less important of the two sides of the problem. Reducing stressors in the work environment may offer real benefit, but often it does get at the problem's real roots. It is like providing symptomatic relief to a patient without ever addressing the underlying disorder or encouraging the development of life habits that foster a positive state of well-being. Instead of merely reducing the bad in medical practice, we need to enhance the good.

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Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. Gunderman's most recent book is X-Ray Vision.

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