New research shows that 1 in 5 physicians hopes to reduce their clinical hours, while 1 in 50 plans to quit altogether in the next 2 years. This is based on a national survey investigating both professional satisfaction and physician “burnout,” a growing epidemic in healthcare. So-called burnout is often considered a result of increased responsibilities and stress plaguing more than half of U.S. physicians.
By responding to burnout in this way, doctors will leave healthcare institutions drastically understaffed. At the same time, our nation’s hospitals continue to suffer from an even bigger epidemic, often attributed to doctors who experience burnout: medical errors. These errors have amassed and amassed to such a point where many consider it the nation’s third leading cause of death.
Burnout or Doctor Shortage: Which Is Worse for Patients?
Conducted by the Mayo Clinic, the study surveyed 6,880 physicians. Its results indicate that doctor attrition (or, the gradual “wearing down” of doctors over time) will have a profound impact on healthcare.
Considering the enormous cost of replacing staff – as much as $800,000 per doctor – coupled with an already existing shortage of physicians, study authors suggest the public should be worried about doctors’ intention to reduce hours or leave the field.
If even a third of doctors follow through with their intentions to leave, notes Kristine D. Olson, MD at Yale School of Medicine, we would see a loss of 4,759 physicians each year, or the equivalent of 19 medical schools’ graduating classes. This “would exacerbate the physician shortfall of 45,000 to 90,000 expected by 2025, and impede patients’ access to care,” she wrote.
Clearly, exacerbated physician shortage will put other doctors under further pressure and risk of burnout. But if doctors already suffering burnout continue to practice, they continue to expose their patients to risks of medical error. To solve this catch-22, researchers concluded, concerted efforts are needed at national and organizational levels to address underlying causes of burnout. After all, burnout itself is only 1 of several underlying causes of doctor errors that lead to birth injuries, misdiagnoses, and over 250,000 premature deaths each year.
The Battle against Burnout Heats Up
At this point, the prevalence of burnout is well-established. In just 4 years, physician burnout has increased by 25 percent. Another survey published earlier this year found issues such as “too many bureaucratic tasks” and “spending too many hours at work” were leading doctors to lose enthusiasm for their work.
Previous studies have found that physicians dedicate 15 hours per week on quality reporting at an annual cost of $15 Billion, and that for every hour a physician spends with patients, they spend another 2 hours on administrative tasks. Not only do excessive administrative responsibilities take precious time away from patients in need, but they “dehumanize” the medical profession, according to a study on electronic health record technology and its effect on clinical practice.
This results in dissatisfaction among doctors, followed by increased feelings of cynicism and a decreased professionalism, concentration, effort, and empathy. In turn, this has proven to create a disconnect between doctors and their patients. Patients have even reported disrespectful behavior from doctors – and some later suffer medical complications.
What’s Being Done to Save Patients?
Unfortunately, despite rising discontent among doctors and concerns over quality of care, there is little being done to curb burnout. When asked how their organization is addressing professional satisfaction, many physicians responded “nothing,” “not enough,” or “talking about the problem in committees but no action plan yet.” This creates yet another catch-22: perceived lack of attention among stressed doctors only compounds their feelings of hopelessness.
Yet more urgent is the healthcare system’s ignorance of the disturbing regularity of medical errors, a vastly underestimated problem. Experts believe doctors fail to report their errors correctly for fear of damaging their individual reputations. In these cases, hospitals don’t have the information they need to take disciplinary measures.
In terms of action plans, experts have suggested providing doctors with more control over their work pace, creating work environments that foster respect and fairness, and a team-based model for care. Most importantly, according to the latest survey, healthcare institutions need to better monitor staff so that burnout never becomes a threat to physicians’ wellbeing or their patients’ lives. It’s surely time for healthcare policymakers to step up before it’s too late.