Do you ever doubt that you’re making a difference? If this feeling crosses your mind very often, you’re more likely to experience burnout, regardless of your occupation. With the rapid and dramatic changes to their role identity, physicians are especially prone to this condition, characterized by emotional exhaustion and a low sense of accomplishment.
“Even though my bad days are rare, it seems irrational that they exist at all, irrational that I would ever not feel accomplished enough or doubt that I’m making a difference,” says M.D. Anderson oncologist Dr. Behrouz Zand (Houston Chronicle, February 9, 2017). “But my ‘irrational’ thoughts may be symptoms of a bigger problem,” he adds. Dr. Zand believes that the epidemic in physician burnout is directly related to an ever-increasing bureaucracy, forcing doctors to devote less and less time to interacting with their patients.
Although no physician is a hundred percent immune to burnout, primary care physicians–family and internal medicine, emergency medicine, and ob/gyn–are the most susceptible, reporting burnout rates from 55 to 59 percent (Medscape survey, January 2017). Other at risk doctors are those who specialize in ENT, plastic surgery and critical care medicine. The “lowest” rates of burnout are found in allergists, psychiatrists, pathologists and ophthalmologists, with “only” 42 to 43 percent reporting symptoms of burnout.
To call burnout an epidemic is not an exaggeration. Of the 926,000 practicing physicians nationwide, an estimated 470,000 are experiencing symptoms of burnout. Not only are burned out physicians endangering their own health, studies show they’re putting their patients’ welfare at risk as well–“lower patient satisfaction, more medical errors, and higher healthcare costs” (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, February 8, 2017).
“If physicians only view their occupation as a job, that has implications over time in terms of their commitment to their patients,” says the senior author of the Mayo study Dr. Audley Kao, vice president of ethics at the American Medical Association.
Dr. Kao’s team surveyed 2000 physicians from a wide spectrum of specialties to find out whether burnout rates were influenced by doctors’ views of medicine as a meaningful calling versus medicine as just a job. “Doctors with the highest degree of burnout had much lower odds of calling their work rewarding” (Reuters).
Regardless of one’s profession, workplace satisfaction is, no doubt, key to one’s general well-being and overall happiness. Says Dr. Kao: “Having physicians who see their work as a sense of calling is not only important for physicians but as important, if not more important, for the patients they care for.” For many doctors, going into medicine was probably a calling that was lost along the way, likely due to systemic changes that have little to do with patient care. Somehow this sense of medicine as a calling needs to be re-discovered. But, how?