The United States is in the middle of a physician burnout crisis, according to recent data published in JAMA.
However, not every medical system or practice is rushing to fix the problem. Christine Sinsky, MD, FACP, vice president of professional satisfaction at the American Medical Association (AMA) and a practicing general internist, says that among equally important considerations, physician burnout creates tremendous financial loss for any medical practice or system, and there’s really no time to wait to take a hard look at it.
“I think a lot of leaders are understandably reluctant to measure the degree of burnout in their workforce because they’re not sure what to do about it,” she says. But she urges tackling it head on. “How can you possibly afford not to?”
The economic costs of not addressing burnout are major. Sinsky says the data shows that it costs between $500,000 and $1 million to replace an existing physician. This, she feels, is a conservative figure. “It doesn’t include many, many other sources of financial costs to burnout.”
To help, the AMA has created a special online physician burnout calculator, based on data from several studies, specifically to help hospitals and practices take a hard look at the financial fallout. As an example, a healthcare system with 500 physicians, at the average national rate of 54% burnout rate can expect to spend $12 million every year just to replace physicians who leave the organization due to burnout. “These costs are staggering, and I think they’re not telling the whole story of the cost that burnout has to the organization,” Sinsky says.
Indirect financial costs get tacked on as physicians may respond to being burned out in a number of ways other than just “seeking greener pastures elsewhere,” she says. They may respond to burnout by staying in place but cutting back to part-time. “That’s expensive to an organization,” she says.
Or they may respond by being less productive or seeing fewer patients in their existing sessions. Worse, she says, “They may respond by providing less safe care. We know that care is safer when physicians are satisfied with their work, and that safety hazards add costs to the organization.”
Additionally, further consequences of a physician who leaves or provides inferior care is that patients may begin to leave, too.