Nearly all doctors suffer burnout, survey finds, but many cautiously hopeful that AI could help

Nearly all physicians in the U.S. said they feel regularly burned out and over half of them have considered either leaving the profession or adopting non-patient-facing roles, according to a new athenahealth survey.

An overwhelming 93% of the physicians surveyed said they feel such regular burnout with an average of 15 hours spent working weekly over and above normal hours, according to the third physician sentiment survey, conducted by The Harris Poll. A majority, 56%, said they might choose to leave the field or reduce their patient-facing work.

“The negative sentiments held by large numbers of U.S. physicians present a major challenge to the continued success of American healthcare, with serious implications for providers and patients alike,” concluded the athenahealth survey.

Many doctors see a silver lining with advancements in healthcare AI. Among those surveyed, 83% said AI could eventually reduce the problems facing healthcare if it focuses on reducing administrative burdens and increasing efficiencies.

Twice as many survey participants said that AI would eventually be part of the solution, compared to those who said it is part of the problem. Those who believed in the positive potential of AI are much more hopeful that the field of healthcare is headed in the right direction; they also felt less burned out on a regular basis than those who were pessimistic about AI’s positive role, the survey results found.

“AI optimists" tend to be younger male physicians, noted Jessica Sweeney-Platt, vice president of research and editorial strategy at athenahealth.

Concerns remain, however, about a potential “loss of human touch” with such new technology.

“That is an incredibly important signal to which we need to pay attention,” said Dr. Nele Jessel, chief medical officer at athenahealth. “If we get this right, we’ll be using more technology to lessen administrative work and increase efficiencies in ways that recenter physicians’ time around their patients.”

Physicians who tended to view AI more favorably also looked at the general future of healthcare in a more favorable light, according to the survey. Still, 42% of physicians said AI will be just another factor complicating healthcare further with 40% believing it is overhyped and won't therefore meet lofty expectations.

The survey also delved into physicians' views on the state of healthcare and business challenges. Only four in 10 (38%) of physicians believe their healthcare system to be on a firm financial footing with half the physicians surveyed noting they have been unable on at least a weekly basis to provide the quality of care they would like based on volume and cost.

Systems using both value-based and fee-for-service care tend to view the financial status of their health systems in a more favorable light.

And, while nearly all physicians agreed that having the right data at the right time is very important, 80% of them didn't believe that having more data was always a good solution as they feel overwhelmed already by too much information, increasingly contributing to feelings of burnout.

“We are witnessing the results of what is increasingly an unsustainable business model,” Sweeny-Platt told Fierce Healthcare. “Patient-centered care is being crowded out by the incredible growth of administrative requirements both from payers and government agencies.”

The survey interviewed 1,003 physicians online over the period October 23-November 8. Most of those physicians, 750, were primary care providers, the remaining 253 were specialists. Only 5% of the physicians surveyed use athenahealth electronic health records.