No panacea for physician burnout, but there are ways to help

By Kaitlin Morrison-Greenlund

While some burnout may be inevitable in a high-stress job like medicine, it's the responsibility of every healthcare organization to address preventable burnout. Practices, experts say, must keep open communication lines with the physicians and help them develop stress-coping skills.

A recent study at the Mayo Clinic is one of the only so far to examine what interventions best prevent physician burnout.

For the study, originally published in Critical Care and also by Medscape, researchers compared data from physicians who participated in a set of interventions to that of a control group whose members responded to an annual survey. The 74 physicians in the intervention group divided into small groups that met regularly for nine months to participate in facilitated discussions, learn about stress-reduction techniques and practice reflecting on their experiences. The Mayo Clinic also gave members of this group one hour of paid "protected time" every other week.

These activities did not reduce depression or improve the doctors' work satisfaction in a statistically significant way, according to the results. However, rates of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion and overall burnout decreased substantially in the intervention group, the authors wrote, with results lasting for 12 months after the program ended.

The is no one way to prevent or cure all physicians from suffering burnout, the authors concluded, but there are some clues about how to improve physicians' well-being.

"Some physicians will benefit from an additional hour of protected nonclinical time for personal meditation while others will benefit from a shared community curriculum," they wrote, adding that future research should focus on which interventions work for whom.

Mounting changes in the healthcare environment have pushed the industry well past the tipping point of needing to take burnout seriously, noted an article in the Pensacola News Journal.

"When you look at research on how much change a human being can handle, doctors went past that years ago," Quint Studer, author of the book, "Healing Physician Burnout: Diagnosing, Preventing, and Treating," told the newspaper.

The American Medical Association's new Steps Forward program is one example of broad efforts to help physicians learn smarter work processes and reduce stress. The website is free to the public and added a number of new training modules earlier this month. The ideas presented in the modules are provided by physicians, for physicians, noted Ellie Rajcevich, a practice development advisor with the AMA, at the Medical Group Management Association's (MGMA) 2015 conference.

The goal of the Steps Forward program, which has recently partnered with the MGMA to help exchange ideas, is to help physicians learn "how to swing the pendulum back in favor of your practices," Rajcevich told attendees.

To learn more:
- read the article
- see the study