Recent Study Finds Physician Burnout Prevalent; Impacts Malpractice and Patient Care


By: Mary Ellen Lighthiser
A recent New York Times article discussed a troubling study that indicates a high number of physicians are experiencing burnout.  The recent study described burnout as “emotional exhaustion, detachment and a low sense of accomplishment.”  The study suggests that more than half of doctors practicing a specialty with “front-line access to care,” such as family medicine, emergency medicine, and general internal medicine, have experienced burnout.  Such high rates of physician burnout may have substantial implications for our healthcare system.  As the article suggests, doctors suffering from burnout are more prone to errors, less empathetic and more likely to treat patients like diagnoses or objects. They are also more likely to quit practicing altogether, a trend that has serious repercussions in a system already facing a severe doctor shortage as it attempts to expand coverage to 30 million or more currently uninsured Americans.
The prevalence of physician burnout is seemingly tied to the increasing limitations and requirements placed on their profession.  These physicians feel thwarted by the limited time they are allowed to spend with patients, stymied by the ever-changing rules set by insurers and other payers on what they can prescribe or offer as treatment, and frustrated by the fact that any gains in efficiency offered by electronic medical records are so soon offset by numerous, newly devised administrative tasks that must also be completed on the computer.
These concerns and issues are nothing new since the advent of managed care.  However, based on this study, the problem appears to be worsening.  One of the physicians involved with the study said one solution to the problem is for hospitals to restructure its clinics so that doctors could spend more time with patients and less time on administrative and insurance-related tasks.  These structural solutions may also work to reduce medical malpractice liability in general, as one article has observed, “the primary cause of lawsuits is not negligence but ineffective communication among patients, physicians and consultants, and families of patients.”
Let us know your thoughts on physician burnout, its impact, and solutions to the problem.