Surgeons face same risks as coal miners when it comes to work-related disorders and pain

Surgeons face a high risk of developing work-related muscularskeletal injuries.

Surgeons and medical interventionalists face similar risks of developing work-related musculoskeletal disorders as those in other labor-intensive occupations, such as coal miners, according to a new study.

Long hours, repetitive movements and static postures put these physicians at high risk for neck, shoulder, back and upper extremity pain, according to the study published in JAMA Surgery. Long term, they can lead to degenerative cervical spine disease (17%), rotator cuff pathology (18%), degenerative lumbar spine disease (19%) and carpal tunnel syndrome (9%).

For the study, researchers from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Northeastern University conducted an analysis of 21 studies that included more than 5,800 physicians to determine the prevalence of work-related musculoskeletal disorders among surgeons and interventionalists who are considered at high risk for such disorders.

They found the risk was comparable to that of other high-risk workers, such as coal miners, manufacturing laborers and physical therapists. Given the looming physician shortage and the problem with burnout, the researchers concluded that the problem warrants prompt action to prevent the disorders. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the physician shortage could reach between 40,800 and 104,900 doctors by 2030.

Those musculoskeletal disorders take a toll on doctors. Of those with a work-related injury, 12% required a leave of absence, practice restriction or modification, or early retirement, the study found. Despite the problem, 12 at-risk specialties described a major lack of awareness of the issue and an unmet need for ergonomics education.

Study authors said further research is needed to develop an evidence-based ergonomics program to prevent these disorders in at-risk physicians. Other studies have also pointed out the importance of physician wellness programs. Research showed that burnout has led 1 in 5 doctors to plan to reduce their clinical hours. And roughly 1 in 50 physicians say they plan to leave medicine altogether within the next two years.