The Physician Burnout Epidemic: What It Means for Patients and Reform

In a large analysis published this week in Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers at the Mayo Clinic surveyed 7,288 physicians on their quality of life and job satisfaction. The results are striking -- 46 percent of respondents reported at least one burnout symptom. The report indicates that doctors, as a group and relative to other highly educated individuals working similar hours, suffer high levels of emotional exhaustion and struggle to find a satisfying work-life balance.

"This matters not just for physicians, but for patients," says Dr. Tait Shanafelt, a professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and senior author of the paper. Burnout can diminish professionalism and lessen the quality of care. At the same time, it leads doctors to reduce their hours and retire early. "We're at the cusp of reform," he said. "Precisely when we need more family and internal medicine doctors, students are more likely to enter other fields. This issue has implications for the adequacy of the physician workforce."

"It's a really big problem," confirms Dr. Vineet Arora, a faculty member and associate residency program director at the University of Chicago. She has studied physician fatigue and professionalism. "The issues for doctors in training aren't necessarily the same as for those who are in practice," she says. After residency or fellowship, doctors are older and have less supervision. "There's a recipe for burnout because of the long hours and high workload," she says. "Most health care systems don't provide joy and sustainability in the workplace," she said. "In that case, it doesn't matter happens during education and training. The delivery system has to change."

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