Pauline Chen, MD blogs at the NY Times about what it feels like to be a doctor today. Here she discusses a new survey of 7,000 practicing doctors, 48% of whom experienced at least one symptom of “burnout.” Excerpts from her article follow:
…Research over the last 10 years has shown that burnout – the particular constellation of emotional exhaustion, detachment and a low sense of accomplishment – is widespread among medical students and doctors-in-training. Nearly half of these aspiring doctors end up becoming burned out over the course of their schooling, quickly losing their sense of empathy for others and succumbing to unprofessional behavior like lying and cheating.Now, in what is the first study of burnout among fully trained doctors from a wide range of specialties, it appears that the young are not the only ones who are vulnerable. Doctors who have been practicing anywhere from a year to several decades are just as susceptible to becoming burned out as students and trainees. And the implications of their burnout — unlike that of their younger counterparts, who are often under supervision — may be more devastating and immediate.
Analyzing questionnaires sent to more than 7,000 doctors, researchers found that almost half complained of being emotionally exhausted, feeling detached from their patients and work or suffering from a low sense of accomplishment. The researchers then compared the doctors’ responses with those of nearly 3,500 people working in other fields and found that even after adjusting for variables like gender, age, number of hours worked and amount of education, the doctors were still more likely to suffer from burnout.
“We’re not talking about a few individuals who are disorganized or not functioning well under pressure; we’re talking about one out of every two doctors who have already survived rigorous training,” said Dr. Tait D. Shanafelt, the lead author of the study and a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “These numbers speak to bigger problems in the larger health care environment.”
The doctors’ burnout appeared to have little to do with hours worked or even the ability to balance personal life with work. Instead, the only factor predictive of a higher risk was practicing a specialty that offered front-line access to care. More than half of the doctors in family medicine, emergency medicine and general internal medicine experienced some form of burnout.
The study casts a grim light on what it is like to practice medicine in the current health care system. A significant proportion of doctors feel trapped, thwarted by the limited time they are allowed to spend with patients, stymied by the ever-changing rules set by insurers and other payers on what they can prescribe or offer as treatment and frustrated by the fact that any gains in efficiency offered by electronic medical records are so soon offset by numerous, newly devised administrative tasks that must also be completed on the computer….