Preventing Physician Burnout

August 10, 2022

Preventing physician burnout is a primary concern of health systems across the country. Physicians who feel burned out have low job satisfaction. They're at risk for developing depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal ideation.

Burnout is not just bad for physicians, but for patients as well. A recent study used questionnaires to determine burnout. Those who met the criteria were more than twice as likely to report a medical error in the previous three months.

Additionally, physicians struggling with burnout are more likely to retire early. In other words, burnout means health care systems can lose out on the expertise of senior doctors.

The World Health Organization characterizes burnout as:

  • Feeling a day-to-day lack of energy or exhaustion.
  • Cynicism or negative feelings toward one's job.
  • Reduced effectiveness in one's job.

The stresses of the COVID pandemic have led to more burnout among health care workers. According to the 2022 Medscape survey, 47% of the doctors who responded to the survey reported feeling burned out. This is up from 42% in the previous year.

What Contributes to Burnout Among Physicians?

Burnout is unique from depression in that feelings of frustration and detachment stem from work pressures. According to a recent review, factors leading to burnout include:

  • Long work shifts.
  • High on-call demands.
  • Little appreciation at work.
  • Poor social connection at work.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality notes that chaotic workplaces with many time pressures pose a high risk for burnout. These environments leave doctors with little control of their pace and workload.

Related to this, physicians who feel they cannot change their situation are more prone to burnout. Studies show a relationship between high burnout and low input of doctors in scheduling and other decisions.

How Can We Prevent Physician Burnout?

Studies show that support from peers in stressful times, such as after medical errors, improve doctor's resilience. The American Medical Association (AMA) recommends that health care organizations train peer supporters.

Peer supporters can be listening ears that physicians know they can approach if they're feeling stressed. In addition, peer supporters can proactively approach physicians. For example, they could reach out and offer emotional support after an unexpected patient outcome.

Peer supporters should have knowledge of all available mental health programs for physicians. In addition, peer supporters can provide information on doctors' workplace and legal rights.

Receiving thanks for one's work and taking time to appreciate the positive aspects of one's day can also protect against burnout. The AMA recommends that leaders and colleagues take the time to acknowledge others' contributions. In addition, questions such as "What went well today?" can encourage appreciative thoughts.

Of course, addressing physicians' workload and work environments itself are key to preventing burnout. Ways to reduce workload pressures include:

  • Holding routine provider meetings to allow staff members to share work challenges and pose solutions.
  • Creating solutions to reduce data entry burdens, such as enlisting the help of medical assistants.
  • Allow physician input in scheduling.
  • Allowing flexible or part-time work schedules.

How UPMC's Physician Thrive Works to Prevent Physician Burnout

UPMC's Physician Thrive program works to prevent physician burnout on a number of fronts. On a routine basis, Physician Thrive organizes focus group meetings for physicians in each hospital division or department. The format, where physicians first write down their key challenges, ensures that all doctors have an equal say.

The challenges and possible solutions raised in the meetings are then presented to leaders for implementation. The process ensures that leaders not only hear physicians, but act upon their input.

In addition, Physician Thrive offers both trained peer supporters that provide counseling and help physicians deal with workplace issues. Peer supporters are available 24 hours a day throughout the hospital.

“Physicians, like most people, don't always seek out mental health resources. There is still stigma. We try to be thoughtful about how we can reduce the energy it takes to initiate care," explains Jennifer Berliner, MD, a Physician Thrive committee co-chair and cardiologist who sits on the scientific board of the Physician Wellness Academic Consortium.

If you're experiencing feelings of stress or burnout, reach out to a peer or a mental health provider. You may need someone to talk to in the moment, or you may want to learn more about available programs.