Opinion

The Crisis of Physician Burnout

Opinion

By Tom Flanagan

Burnout among the nation’s physicians has become so pervasive that a new paper published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc. has deemed the condition a public health crisis.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout.

The paper includes directives aimed at curbing the prevalence of burnout among physicians and other care providers, including the appointment of an executive-level chief wellness officer at every major healthcare organization, proactive mental-health treatment and support for caregivers experiencing burnout, and improvements to the efficiency of electronic health records. 

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout. Burnout is a syndrome involving one or more of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession. 

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician wellbeing is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients,” said Dr. Alain Chaoui, a practicing family physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.  “We need our healthcare institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.” 

By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout. Further complicating matters is the cost an employer must incur to recruit and replace a physician, estimated at between $500,000 and $1,000.000.

The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a Veterans Affairs physician and Harvard faculty member. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.” 

The full report is available at www.massmed.org.

Tom Flanagan is Media Relations manager for the Massachusetts Medical Society.

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