Physician burnout reaches fever pitch

Rampant professional burnout drives more doctors to sell their practices, slash their patient panels or retire early, according to an article from the Washington Post. The problem is particularly acute in primary care, where physicians manage patients' comprehensive needs, yet get as little as 11 minutes to spend with each of them.

A big contributor to physicians' stress levels is the amount of time they spend doing uncompensated work. In a typical day, the average primary care physician handles 18.5 phone calls, reads 16.8 e-mails, processes a dozen prescription refills (not counting those written during a visit), interprets 19.5 lab reports, reviews 11 imaging reports and reads and follows up on 13.9 reports from specialists, according to research from Richard J. Baron, M.D., president of the American Board of Internal Medicine, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"This is about meeting the patients' needs," Baron told the newspaper. "But ... it doesn't generate revenue."

Electronic medical records adoption--intended to save time and improve care--also feeds many physicians' frustrations. "Many physicians said to us, 'I used to be a doctor, now I'm a clerk,' " Jay Crosson, M.D., a pediatrician and vice president of professional satisfaction for the American Medical Association, told the Post. In addition to dragging down productivity, EMRs' lack of interoperability and interference in physician-patient face time rank high on docs' list of complaints.

If these trends continue, experts fear the United States won't resolve its predicted 45,000 primary-care doctor shortage in 2020. What's more, remaining doctors who suffer from burnout pose a risk to patient satisfaction as well as outcomes and safety, the article noted, citing recent studies.

For example, dissatisfied physicians had more trouble than their happier peers caring for patients, research published in the Journal of Family Practice in 2002 found. More recently, a study from the Annals of Surgery found that burned-out surgeons were more likely to make major medical errors.

While there's little mystery to what will make physicians happier, the current state of the U.S. health marketplace is making it difficult. "What drives physician satisfaction is also what patients and payers want: delivering good care. And we're less and less able to do that," Christine Sinsky, M.D., an internist in Dubuque, Iowa, told the newspaper. "You spend less time listening to patients, getting to know them and thinking more deeply about their care."

To learn more:
- read the article from the Washington Post
- check out Baron's research 
- here's the 2002 study 
- read the Annals of Surgery study