On any visit to a doctor, be it a routine checkup or a concern about something potentially more serious, a patient expects the physician to give their full attention to the appointment and provide the best possible care. While doctors strive to comply with the standard of care, a growing number of medical students, residents, and even veteran doctors are struggling with burnout, leaving patients to suffer the consequences.
Research has shown that burnout, a combination of detachment, emotional exhaustion, and a low sense of accomplishment, is common among doctors-in-training. This finding is not particularly surprising due to the lengthy shifts and heavy workloads residents carry during their rotations. But a 2012 study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine found that established doctors could just as easily fall victim to burnout, with potentially worse outcomes. Because veteran doctors work with less supervision than students and residents, the lack of engagement that results from burnout can easily lead to medical malpractice, including those leading to death.
In questionnaires sent to over 7000 doctors, the study found that almost half complained of at least one symptom of burnout. When researchers compared these results to responses from 3500 questionnaires sent to workers in other fields, they found that doctors were still more likely to suffer from burnout. The study seems to illustrate a disturbing trend--a loss of inspiration among hard working, dedicated professionals at a time when healthcare coverage is expanding faster than doctors are being trained.
Researchers noted that doctors dealing with burnout are less empathetic, less likely to take a personal interest in their patients, and more likely to commit medical mistakes. They are also the most likely to quit practicing medicine altogether, creating a problem that could have a serious effect on the healthcare system. Over half of doctors most affected by burnout practice in specialties most commonly visited by an average patient. These specialties include family medicine, emergency medicine, and general internal medicine.
In the current healthcare system, many doctors find it difficult to provide patients with the appropriate level of care while also dealing with the rules set by insurance companies and the mounting number of administrative tasks they attend to each day. As this study shows, physician burnout is an issue that must be addressed to ensure the safety of patients, the dedication of doctors, and the quality of care provided by the entire healthcare system.
New York Times, The Widespread Problem of Doctor Burnout, 8-23-12