The new year is here. If you’re like most Americans, any resolutions you made for 2024 have already gone kaput. 

Researchers suggest that only nine percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions complete them. More than 20 percent of individuals quit their resolution by the end of the first week, and 43 percent do so by the end of January. 

Unfortunately, some healthcare issues prevalent in the United States must be dealt with through more than a New Year’s resolution. That is certainly the case with physician burnout

There are numerous definitions of physician burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO) characterizes it by these three dimensions:

  • Emotional exhaustion, leading to easily becoming irritable or downhearted
  • Replacement of usual empathy with cynicism, negativity and feeling emotionally numb, which is called depersonalization
  • A low sense of professional satisfaction and effectiveness

Just how pervasive is physician burnout in the U.S.? More than half of physicians in America are suffering from burnout, and more than 90 percent of physicians have experienced it at some point in their careers. 

Physician burnout was a problem long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the public health emergency made it much worse. The rate of physician burnout in the U.S. more than doubled during the first years of the pandemic, with physicians reporting higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism and lower levels of personal efficacy in 2021 compared to 2019. 

It’s not just doctors who experience burnout. Roughly 22 percent of healthcare workers experience moderate depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Physician burnout varies by medical specialty and type of healthcare organization. A survey of inpatient and outpatient providers found that outpatient providers reported more emotional exhaustion than inpatient providers, and the highest percentages of burnout occurred among six physician specialties:

  • Emergency medicine
  • Hospital medicine
  • Family medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Internal medicine

The problem also differs by gender. Female physicians experience a burnout rate of 63 percent in contrast with their male counterparts at 46 percent. 

Ramifications of Physician Burnout — For Patients AND Doctors 

Tired and frustrated doctors and nurses aren’t the only repercussions of physician burnout. The issue is associated with a reduction in the overall quality of care, higher healthcare expenditures — at least $4.6 billion annually, increased medical errors and more. Physicians with burnout are more likely to make medical errors, receive lower patient satisfaction scores and have higher rates of absenteeism. 

One of the most serious results of physician burnout is its impact on patient care and safety. Research shows that doctors suffering from burnout are more than twice as likely to be involved with patient safety incidents than other physicians. About nine percent of doctors who experience burnout are prone to have made at least one major medical error in the past three months. 

The depersonalization associated with physician burnout results in other consequences. Specifically, it sometimes leads to negative, cynical, hostile attitudes and detached feelings toward patients. 

Those are just ways physician burnout affects patients. Professional consequences of physician burnout can contribute to the failure of interpersonal relationships and increased risk of malpractice, and more serious ramifications include depression, addiction and suicidal ideation. 

One of the biggest financial effects of physician burnout is the cost of turnover. Research has shown that burnout contributes to turnover among primary care clinicians. When a doctor leaves his or her job, it results in a loss of $50,000 to $1 million in training and recruiting a new physician. 

According to MGMA, about three in 10 medical groups had a physician leave or retire early in 2023 due to burnout. That turnover worsens the existing physician shortage, leading to longer wait times and decreased access to care for patients. 

Factors That Lead to Physician Burnout 

What exactly causes burnout among physicians? There are multiple societal, cultural, structural and organizational factors, such as:

  • Increased work hours
  • Bureaucratic/administrative work
  • Electronic health record (increased screen time)
  • Failure to achieve work-life integration
  • Increased focus on productivity
  • Lack of leadership support
  • Lack of meaningful work
  • Lack of collegiality at work
  • Lack of individual and organizational value alignment
  • Lack of flexibility/work control

The American Medical Association notes that physician burnout is often associated with increasing administrative responsibility due to regulatory pressures and evolving payment and care delivery models, which can lead to a reduction in the amount of time physicians spend delivering direct patient care. Primary care doctors spend an average of about two hours interacting with an EMR for every hour of patient contact, including 4.5 hours during the clinic day and an additional hour and a half in the evening. 

Although they might be subtle in some physicians, there are a plethora of signs that indicate burnout. In addition to the emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, low sense of professional satisfaction effectiveness and other symptoms mentioned earlier in this blog, burnout sometimes manifests itself through sleep deprivation and substance abuse. About 14 percent of physicians report that they’ve consumed alcohol or a controlled substance while at work, and 21 percent of doctors say they’ve had drugs or alcohol multiple times per day. 

Applying Technology to Lighten Physicians’ Administrative Burden

Even though bureaucratic and administrative work is often cited by physicians as one of the top factors leading to burnout, only 29 percent of physicians surveyed agree that their practice is set up to minimize their administrative burden. Although not all technology helps alleviate physician burnout, well-designed solutions reduce some of the administrative pressure on doctors. 

Digital health tools designed with the user in mind not only reduce administrative burdens but also improve patient outcomes, boost efficiency and productivity, increase patient engagement and encourage patients to actively participate in shared decision-making. For example, digital technology that delivers automated patient outreach, HIPAA-compliant two-way texting and population health management increases operational efficiency while optimizing patient care. 

If you’re looking for digital health solutions to help mitigate physician burnout by lowering your practice’s administrative burden, contact us today to speak with our patient care experts. 

If you are a physician having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Or, call the Physician Support Line (1-888-409-0141), a national, free and confidential support line made up of 600+ volunteer psychiatrists who provide peer support for physician colleagues and American medical students.