Surgeon superpowers do not confer immunity to burnout

Just in case you were wondering, surgeons aren't superhuman after all. Like the rest of us, they burnout and get depressed too.

The more hours a surgeon works, the higher the chance of burnout, according to a study led by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. Among surgeons who worked less than 60 hours a week, 30 percent of surgeons were burnt out. Among those who worked more than 80 hours a week, half burned out.

"Increasing hours and nights on call results in surgeon distress using every variable we have," said Dr. Charles Balch, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the study's lead author. The strong correlation between workload and distress gets played out in surgeons' personal and professional lives. Of those who worked more than 80 hours a week, four in 10 screened positive for depression. Surgeon burnout can conceivably hurt patients as well: one in 10 of those 80-plus hour workers said they had made a significant medical error in the last three months.

Some surgeons regret the choices they've made. One in five surgeons who works more than 80 hours a week said they would not become a surgeon if they faced that decision today.

Despite the personal, professional and patient safety problems related to heavy workloads, Balch and his co-authors do not support restricted work hours."While there is evidence that burnout can lead to problems, there is no evidence that reducing hours would make all doctors more satisfied or lead to better patient care," Balch says. Surgeons don't necessarily want their hours monitored or regulated, he said. 

Not surprisingly, surgeons who were salaried employees favored work hour limits more than those who depend on billing for services.

The researchers' data set included more than 7,900 surgeons.

To learn more:
- read the Johns Hopkins Medicine press release
- here's the Journal of the American College of Surgeons abstract

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