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Physician Burnout in a Nutshell

November 19, 2018

By Elmore F. Rigamer, M.D., MPA

Physician Burnout in a Nutshell

Physician burnout has been present for about 20 years, but it has not been actively acknowledged until the past decade. Burnout can be identified by three main characteristics1 – emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of low personal accomplishment at work.

Here are some details about physician burnout:

  • A prime cause is the industrialization of medicine — physicians have lost autonomy as their practices have become more highly controlled by insurance companies, administrators and government regulations.
  • About half of all physicians are currently experiencing at least one characteristic of burnout, and burnout is seen in all specialties.2
  • Health system leaders now recognize that both organizational and individual strategies are needed to reduce burnout.
  • At the organizational level, initiatives include practice reorganization, increases in efficiencies, structures that allow physicians to do work that only they can do, increased clerical support, and redesign of the electronic health record.
  • At the individual level, physicians can:
    • Consider burnout a possibility — become aware
    • Cultivate relationships with others to reduce isolation
    • Investigate and adopt mindfulness practices to boost personal resilience
    • Take a self-assessment inventory by asking themselves:
      • Am I a good fit for where I work?
      • Do I have a say in decisions that affect me?
      • Do I have autonomy in practice?
      • Am I overloaded with work?
      • Do my values fit with my organization’s?
      • Am I treated fairly?
      • Do I experience collegiality in the workplace?

Most physicians who have symptoms of burnout don’t realize what is happening. The growing prevalence of burnout across the U.S. and among all specialties indicates it is a common condition. It is the result of circumstances that are pervasive in medicine today, not a failure brought on by personal shortcomings.

1.    West CP, Dyrbye LN, Shanafelt TD. Physician burnout: contributors, consequences and solutions. J Intern Med. 2018;283(6):516-529.
2.    Shanafelt TD, Hasan O, Dyrbye LN, et al. Changes in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians and the general US working population between 2011 and 2014. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;90(12):1600-1613.

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