For first time, burnout rate among physicians drops in new survey, now below 45%

There’s some good news when it comes to physician burnout.

After climbing for the last six years, a new survey reports the first drop—however modest—in the number of physicians who say they suffer from burnout.

Some 43.9% of doctors in the U.S. exhibited at least one symptom of burnout in a 2017 survey, compared with 54.4% in 2014 and 45.5% in 2011, according to a triennial study conducted by researchers from the American Medical Association (AMA), the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University School of Medicine. Results were published Friday in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The drop suggests that industrywide efforts to address physician burnout are beginning to work. But any optimism was cautious as burnout rates for doctors are still much higher than those for U.S. workers, where 28.1% reported burnout in 2017.

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“The tide has not yet turned on the physician burnout crisis,” said AMA President Barbara L. McAneny, M.D., in an announcement about the study. “Despite improvements in the last three years, burnout levels remain much higher among physicians than other U.S. workers, a gap inflamed as the bureaucracy of modern medicine interferes with patient care and inflicts a toll on the well-being of physicians.”

The survey of physicians showed that both burnout and satisfaction with work-life integration improved between 2014—when the last survey was conducted and when rates peaked for burnout—and 2017. “This trend is reason for optimism and suggests that progress is both possible and under way,” the study authors said. “Despite this improvement, symptoms of burnout among physicians continue to be prevalent and markedly higher than seen in the general U.S. working population. Given the evidence that burnout impacts patient satisfaction, access, quality of care and costs, continued efforts to make progress are needed.”

Researchers surveyed almost 5,500 physicians between October 2017 and March 2018 and measured rates of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. As well as improved burnout rates, physicians also reported a greater satisfaction with work-life integration in 2017 (42.7%) than in 2014 (40.9%), but less favorable than in 2011 (48.5%). Satisfaction was measured by the question of whether physicians’ work schedules left them enough time for personal/family life.

The researchers said numerous factors could explain the improvement in the prevalence of physician burnout over the last three years. For instance, 2014, when the survey was last done, was a particularly challenging time for physicians, with consolidation of hospitals and medical groups, new regulations, increasing use of electronic health records and increased administrative burden. That may be improving as physicians and healthcare organizations adapt to the new practice environment, they said.

The rate may also have improved because burned-out physicians have left the workforce or reduced their clinical hours. The other factor may be that efforts to address burnout are making a difference. People are talking about the problems, physicians recognize they are not alone, and leadership by national organizations engaging regulators, payers and others may provide optimism that the situation will change, the authors said.

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The AMA agreed that the healthcare industry cannot take its foot off the gas pedal when it comes to trying to curb physician burnout. The AMA called for continued investment in multipronged efforts to reduce burnout in the healthcare system.

While burnout rates are now back below 2011 levels, the AMA warned that more needs to be done to reduce burnout and called on healthcare leaders to remain focused on driving research, interventions, workflow and teamwork enhancements, policy changes and technology improvements.

“There is a strong economic and public health case for prioritizing a comprehensive strategy to reduce the work-induced syndrome of burnout and caregiver fatigue that is pushing some physicians out of medicine. An energized, engaged, and resilient physician workforce is essential to achieving national health goals,” McAneny said.

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The researchers have tracked burnout rates among general U.S. workers to compare them with those of physicians. Those rates held steady but were down slightly. The 28.1% level of burnout reported in 2017 was similar to levels found in 2014 (28.4%) and 2011 (28.6%).

The AMA has been advocating for changes to address physician burnout since 2012. “The progress demonstrated in today’s research suggests that growing national efforts to address physician burnout are on the right track, but more work is needed to achieve meaningful change,” said McAneny. “Addressing the crisis requires continued investment from the health system in a comprehensive strategy that targets barriers to efficiently providing patients with high-quality care as the primary driver of physician burnout.”

The AMA has a number of tools, information and resources on its website for physicians and health systems.

Where you can find help

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress, or for those who are helping a person in crisis.
  • For online chat, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a confidential chat window with counselors available 24/7.