The Epidemic of Physician Burnout

Physician burnout is on the rise, and now affects more than half of U.S. doctors. The epidemic has far-reaching consequences not only for physicians, but also for their families, patients, the whole healthcare team, and the greater healthcare system.

Burnout is characterized by three symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism or dehumanization, and sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Physicians face burnout at double the rate of other U.S. professions. Nurses are also acutely affected. Specialties that are on the front lines of healthcare access — emergency medicine, general internal medicine, and family medicine — carry the greatest risk of burnout.

Burnout has also been linked to hopelessness and a higher risk of suicide.  The statistics for physician suicide are alarming:

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use the Lifeline Crisis Chat.

As Richard I. Levin, MD, our President and CEO, has said, “Too many healthcare professionals are walking away, or worse, committing suicide each year. We can no longer sit back and say this is just part of what being a doctor is all about. We need to find solutions, and make real changes on the ground, so that doctors are less burdened by inadequate technology and can go back to delivering compassionate, scientifically excellent care that includes a relationship between the doctors and patients.  In short, keeping healthcare human.”

How is the Gold Foundation working to help reduce physician burnout?

Research: The Gold Foundation Research Institute funds researchers who examine burnout and other related issues, including the role of empathy. Studies show that high levels of empathy can help protect against burnout. Read about one Mapping the Landscape grant here.

During Suicide Prevention Month, The Gold Foundation is focusing on raising awareness around physician burnout. Click to join us in our fundraising efforts.

Burnout has been linked to physicians’ electronic environment, especially the increased clerical burden of our digital age. Researchers we have funded and support are examining options around more humanistic use of the electronic health record.

Culture: For nearly 30 years, the Gold Foundation has been devoted to fostering the human connection in medicine. Our efforts include recognizing and supporting role models who exemplify compassionate, collaborative, scientifically excellent care and establishing rituals that remind us of and reinforce the humanity of all those involved in healthcare.

The Gold Humanism Honor Society chapters, which number more than 160, and the Mapping the Landscape Symposium. which counts more than 300 researchers in its community of practice, both provide more intimate communities of support for like-minded students and practitioners seeking a humanistic culture of medicine.

What have we learned so far?

A Gold-funded study published in The Lancet showed both individual and institutional efforts can be effective at reducing physician burnout.

For physician leaders and hospital administrators who are looking to design interventions to address burnout, lead researcher Dr. Colin West advises: “Take a step back and engage the people you are trying to help. Asking them to describe their difficulties can help identify which drivers of burnout need to be addressed where they work.”

Dr. West also endorsed the need for further research in this area. “Not every intervention is going to speak to every physician. We have to develop a diverse menu of approaches, and try to understand how those different menu items interconnect.”

Read more about The Lancet study, “Interventions to prevent and reduce physician burnout: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” and the Mapping the Landscape grant that funded the team: Dr. West and his colleagues Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, Dr. Tait Shanafelt, and medical librarian Patricia Erwin. In the same 2016 Lancet issue, Dr. Ronald Epstein, another Gold grantee, co-wrote a commentary “Doing something about physician burnout.”

Drs. West, Dyrbye, and Shanafelt joined with other researchers on more recent discussion paper in National Academy of Medicine (July 5, 2017) that explores what is driving burnout and what research is needed: “Burnout Among Health Care Professionals: A Call to Explore and Address This Underrecognized Threat to Safe, High-Quality Care.”