Any medical professional can experience burnout from time to time, and physicians are no exception. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that nearly half (46 percent) of physicians surveyed reported at least one symptom of burnout, including emotional exhaustion (38 percent), losing enthusiasm for their work, feelings of cynicism and “depersonalization” (29 percent), and a low sense of personal accomplishment (12 percent). Previous studies identified a physician burnout rate of around 30-40 percent. Among primary care physicians and ER doctors, the percentages were even higher.

Physician burnout is troublesome not only for the physicians themselves (suicide rates are much higher for physicians than other professions), but also for their employers and patients. According to the study authors, research has linked burnout to increased risk for medical errors as well as a lower quality of care. Unfortunately, it gets worse. Because physicians are often reluctant to ask for help and burnout can be hard to spot, the problem could go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Mark Linzer, M.D., director of general internal medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, has studied physician burnout since 1996 and shared these warning signs in “How to Beat Burnout: 7 Signs Physicians Should Know,” published last year in the American Medical Association’s AMA Wire:

  • High levels of stress: This is the no. 1 predictor of burnout in physicians, he says.
  • A chaotic practice: “People tend to think it’s the patients that always stress doctors out, but actually, it’s the opposite,” Linzer says. “Caring for patients keeps doctors motivated. What burns them out is caring for patients in a high-stress environment. Change the environment, and you’ll change the overall quality of care.”
  • Misaligned goals with leadership: “Whether at a large hospital or private practice, physicians need to feel as if the people leading them also share their values for medicine and patient care.”
  • Emotional drain: Caring for patients and curing their myriad health conditions both draws physicians to the practice of medicine and can lead to burnout.
  • Poor work-life balance: From interfering with family events to leaving physicians with little time to care for themselves, lack of work-life balance is a huge contributor to burnout for doctors.

Experts agree that preventing burnout requires a multi-pronged approach, including developing flexible schedules, encouraging physicians to seek enjoyment outside of their practice, as well as talking openly and honestly about burnout. Additionally, Lotte Dyrbye, M.D., who contributed to a 2015 article on physician burnout in the AMA Wire, says it’s important to give physicians a venue for talking about medical errors.

“We know that when doctors talk about medical errors, it can help prevent future errors and reduce inappropriate self-blame and distress,” she says. “Incorporate these discussions into your grand rounds or individual talks in your practice.”

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