Physician burnout: 1 in 5 doctors want to reduce their clinical hours

New research shows that burnout has led 1 in 5 doctors to plan to reduce their clinical hours. And roughly 1 in 50 plans to leave medicine altogether within the next two years.

A study of professional satisfaction among 6,880 physicians practicing in the United States conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, American Medical Association and Stanford University indicates that burnout continues to dog many physicians, who said they were inclined to leave the field within the next two years.

The survey’s results, published in the latest issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, suggest that physician attrition hurts access to care and impedes continuity of care. Given what it costs for healthcare organizations to replace physicians, coupled with an existing shortage of primary care doctors, the authors indicate the healthcare system and society in general should be worried.

Using national data, if approximately a third of the physicians suggesting they might leave the workforce in the next two years in fact do, the authors see a loss equivalent in each year of roughly 4,759 physicians, which amounts to the combined average graduating classes from 19 medical schools.

Burnout’s prevalence among the reasons physicians give for leaving the field has led Kristine D. Olson, M.D., of Yale School of Medicine to suggest in an opinion piece published in the same issue that healthcare policymakers sit up and take notice.

“America’s physicians are the canary in the coal mine,” said AMA President David O. Barbe, M.D., in a statement. His organization is pushing decision-makers to take steps to curb burnout before it’s too late, in particular by promoting physicians’ well-being. The study cites administrative fatigue stemming from bureaucratic pressure, as well as dissatisfaction with EHR technology, as the problem's primary contributing factors.

Olson suggests healthcare providers monitor their physicians’ well-being in order to detect and act on factors frustrating doctors before they cause downstream effects on patient care. Even before physicians physically leave a practice, she writes, they may withdraw psychologically, exposing patients to a higher risk of medical errors.