Physician burnout: The costs aren’t only psychological

Burnout among physicians has been widely examined, both for its causes and its impact on individual doctors and the healthcare organizations employing them. But burnout imposes significant financial costs as well, a new study finds.

The study, published online by Annals of Internal Medicine, estimates that burnout costs the U.S. healthcare system about $4.6 billion annually, or about $7,600 per employed physician. Those costs are the result of greater turnover and reduced clinical hours among physicians, two common effects of burnout.

To estimate the costs resulting from turnover, the authors used published data on search, hiring and startup costs for employed physicians. They approximated the cost of doctors reducing their clinical hours by developing a formula for measuring the average percentage difference in weekly work hours between burned out and non-burned out doctors. Estimates for burnout prevalence came from a 2014 national survey that assessed levels of burnout and its impact on respondents’ short-term career plans.

The study’s estimates of burnout-associated costs are conservative, the authors say, since they do not include many of the difficult-to-quantify factors that frequently result from burnout. Among these are disruptions in continuity of patient care, lower patient satisfaction and the impact on other members of the care team when a physician leaves.

The authors note that previous studies have shown that physician burnout can be substantially reduced with moderate levels of investment, and thus “our results suggest that a strong financial basis exists for organizations to invest in remediating physician burnout.”

The study, "Estimating the Attributable Cost of Physician Burnout in the United States," will be published in the June 4 edition of Annals.