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Physician Burnout Rates Top 50 Percent (And That's Not the Worst Finding)

It is time for action to treat and prevent physician burnout, rather than continue to run simple studies like this to pad your bibliography. Sheesh. I wish the academics would do the hard work of measuring effectiveness of prevention efforts with the same vigor as they complete these simple survey studies.
12/15/2015 05:11pm ET | Updated December 15, 2016
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Tired doctor with surgical cap and stethoscope

By Dike Drummond MD, CEO TheHappyMD.com

Highlights:
- Latest Mayo Clinic study shows over 50 percent of US Physicians now suffering at least one symptom of burnout.
- Depression and suicidal ideation rates even more concerning.

In our work with thousands of over stressed and burned out doctors, it has been clear that burnout rates in the USA have been rising in the last several years. There is just too much political chaos, marketplace M&A activity and documentation overload for it to be otherwise.

Finally the research has caught up with our suspicions in the latest version of Mayo's landmark 2011 physician burnout study. Here is our smoking gun at last.

Sure, burnout rates are up an additional 20 percent but that is not the most concerning finding

Mayo Clinic Proceedings this month published results of round two of their survey of burnout in physicians compared to burnout in the "normal population". The first round in 2011 was major news across the country and the first study that compared physician burnout rates to those of non-physician workers.

A link to the original article and full analysis of the results are below

The burnout rates are what I expected. The shocker is the number of physicians screening positive for depression and suicidal ideation that no one is reporting on.

The headline trends are these

From 2011 to 2014 physician burnout rates in US physicians increased
AND the gap between physician burnout rates and burnout rates in the normal population widened

The headline stats are these

a) 54.4 percent of physicians admit to at least one symptom of burnout in 2014 up from 45.5 percent in 2011 -- a 19.5 percent increase. The Maslach Burnout Inventory was used to measure burnout in both groups. The physician burnout symptom that was the most common is emotional exhaustion.

b) Burnout in the "normal population" stayed steady over that time period at about 25 percent. The odds ratio shows physicians are 1.97 times more likely to suffer from burnout than the normal population

c) What failed to gain any attention is that 39 percent of the physicians screened positive for depression. I think this slipped under the radar because this rate did not change between the studies. You have to dig deeper into the report to find this statistic.

d) The rate of suicidal ideation among the physicians jumped from 4.0 - 7.2 percent.That is an 80 percent increase. The survey question was about suicidal ideation in the previous year. 7.2 percent of physicians had thought about suicide. This is the shocker of the report for me.

e) Work Life Balance continues to worsen
When the survey tossed out the sentence, "My work schedule leaves me enough time for my personal and/or family life" here are the physician numbers who responded with either "disagree" or "strongly disagree":
2011 - 37.1 percent
2014 - 44.5 percent
Again, a 20 percent increase over 2011

Study Details:

Physicians:

A database of 94,032 physicians was assembled via the American Medical Association Physician Master File. Physician Burnout surveys were delivered by email in August of 2014 with three reminder emails delivered over the ensuing 6 weeks. 35,922 physicians who opened at least 1 invitation e-mail were considered to have received the invitation to participate in the study.

Of those, 6880 or 19.2 percent filled out the survey

NOTE:
This 20 percent response rate is average is normal for surveys of this type. There is no data on how the non-responding 80 percent would have filled out the survey. All we know is this population of responders is a statistically valid sample of the larger population with regards to demographics.

Normal Population:

They surveyed a database of 5392 employed individuals ages 35-65 maintained by the Knowledge Panel -- its website is here.

Screening:

Both populations were screened for
- Burnout
- Depression and suicidal ideation
- Satisfaction with work-life balance

Take home points:

From our work with thousands of burned out physicians and dozens of the organizations that employ them, here is what I take from the study.

Physician burnout is bad and getting slowly worse

The burnout prevalence in YOUR ORGANIZATION is probably right around 50 percent too -- no matter how much you might wish that were not true. Unless you have a proactive, system-wide burnout prevention program in place your burnout rate may actually be higher than this.

It does not have to be this way. Here at TheHappyMD.com we have experience with hundreds of physicians in all specialties showing that simple changes in awareness and new actions applied over time can reverse and prevent burnout. There is no rocket science or black box of mystery here. We need to fill in the holes in our medical education and be actively involved in building a less stressful workplace.

Suicidal ideation is surprisingly common - THAT is the scary statistic here. This is why we always recommend a 24/7 physician crisis hotline and a proactive crisis intervention program for all organizations that employ physicians. This service must be well promoted and highly visible in order to garner participation from the doctors.

Despite the constant presence of burnout concerns in the healthcare industry and the exploding popularity of the topic of physician burnout - effective prevention tools are not being disseminate widely enough to effect the trend of increasing physician burnout rates.

This level of physician burnout interferes with our ability to offer quality of care, however that is not my main concern as a change agent. My concern is this level of burnout makes it extremely challenging for doctors to pull their heads up and play a meaningful role in the redesign of the workplace necessary to reverse this trend.

Continued prevalence studies are meaningless here.
Please stop! It is time for action to treat and prevent physician burnout, rather than continue to run simple studies like this to pad your bibliography. Sheesh. I wish the academics would do the hard work of measuring effectiveness of prevention efforts with the same vigor as they complete these simple survey studies.

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Dike Drummond MD is a family physician and CEO of TheHappyMD.com providing coaching, training and consulting to prevent physician burnout. Find over 117 ways to decrease physician stress and build life balance at www.TheHappyMD.com