Burnout among medical professionals is rising noticeably faster than in other industries. Experts state that addressing this complicated issue will likely require a comprehensive shift in how the industry as a whole educates, trains and manages its professionals.
In 2011, the Mayo Clinic conducted the first of two surveys comparing work satisfaction and burnout levels in the professional medical community.
The 2011 study showed burn out and work dissatisfaction levels averaging 45 percent. Just three years later, the 2014 study showed levels of the same at 54 percent.
What Is Burn Out?
Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, researchers agree on one fact: burnout is something that dedicated professionals in any industry can experience.
According to Medscape, this has led to some standardization across industries of what burn out actually is: reduced interest in work, cynical feelings towards work and a lowered sense of personal accomplishment at work.
Since none of these feelings are typically present at the beginning of the work career, they are seen to characterize a professional who has become burned out for one reason or another.
One of the largest challenges facing medical management teams today is one of doctor, staff and practice management education.
If doctors, support staff, and practice managers can be trained to identify and recognize the unfolding signs of burnout in themselves or colleagues, it will become easier to nip the issue in the bud and apply appropriate remedies right away.
Since many doctors were encouraged in medical school to adopt a work-first focus that is now known to be conducive to becoming burned out, this education needs to be offered in a professional setting and include screening and diagnostic tools and burn out remedies that can be applied immediately.
Today’s doctors, whether burned out or not, maintain a full plate. For this reason, as the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) points out, it is not realistic, even with providing continuing education about burn out, to expect busy medical professionals to take full responsibility for identifying, managing and treating their own burnout.
This needs to begin at the medical management level. It also needs to be included in the risk management assessment for every practice, since having a burned out doctor or other professional on staff raises the malpractice risk factor for patients, colleagues and the practice itself.
More importantly, effective treatment for doctor burnout needs to move away from seeing the burned out professional as “the problem.”
With the current predominant top-down approach that is often issued as a series of commandments (i.e. what to do and what not to do), a doctor who develops burn out may suffer from guilt or shame and may resist naming or addressing the issue for fear of professional censure.
The entire systemic approach must shift before treatments for burnout can do more than just offer stop-gap, band-aid remedies that delay but do not cure the issue.
Here, taking a systemic approach must begin by examining doctor work schedules and work-life balance, doctor wellbeing (regarding physical/mental/emotional health) and similar critical measurements that can indicate risk level for on-the-job burnout.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) mentions the critical need to support burned out doctors in rediscovering what they call the “soul of medicine.” This refers to a burned out doctor’s inability to tap into the initial joy and enthusiasm they felt when studying and first practicing medicine.
By removing the burden of blame from burned out physicians’ shoulders, the system itself takes the first step towards resolving burnout at a systemic level.
Medscape suggests these antidotes to physician burnout:
- Physicians need more support so they can focus on what ONLY they can do in the practice setting. This means more administrators, more assistants and fewer hours spent on paperwork, EHR coding and behind-the-scenes red tape.
- Physicians should be encouraged to self-identify and seek help for burn out. No studies to date have indicated that burnout will just resolve on its own if nothing else changes. Doctors need to be encouraged to come forward in the spirit of doing no harm – including to themselves.
- Physicians must be offered alternatives to the current culture of medicine. This culture positions doctors as superheroes who need no downtime or work-life balance. In reality, doctors are human beings first and professionals second. As such, they need rest as much as any professional does to do their best work.
With these three first steps underway, a burned out physician may be able to find their way back to their personal “soul of medicine” without having to step away from their chosen field to do so.