Symptoms of physician burnout associated with racial biases, study finds

July 30, 2019

The study show suggests reducing physician burnout could potentially reduce racial healthcare inequalities

Physician burnout among resident physicians could potentially be linked to racial bias, according to the results of a recent study published in Jama Network Open. For the study, researchers drew from a national sample of nearly 3,400 non-black, second-year residents and asked questions about their racial beliefs and if they experienced burnout symptoms.

Nearly half of respondents reported they experienced burnout symptoms, which include emotional exhaustion, negativity, and depression.

These results were compared with their feelings toward African Americans, which were calculated using a ‘feeling thermometer’ where participants gauged their racial beliefs on a scale from 1 to 100. Participants were also instructed to sort pictures of black and white individuals into groups that were labeled either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

“Overall, resident physicians who had at least 1 symptom of burnout had lower mean scores toward black people compared with those without symptoms of burnout,” the researchers write. “Higher emotional exhaustion and depersonalization scores were associated with more unfavorable attitudes toward black people.”

This results suggest that black patients may not be receiving the same level of care that white patients receive, further widening the racial gap in the United States.

“According to previous studies, physicians with higher implicit bias toward black people demonstrate fewer patient-centered behaviors during clinical interactions with black patients,” the researchers write. “In turn, their black patients have greater distrust, have lower level of adherence to treatment recommendations, and are less likely to follow up.”

The authors are unclear on how strong the link is between burnout in residents and racial bias-do feelings of burnout lead to expressions of racial bias, or vice versa? But the authors write that their findings are consistent with those of other similar studies, so reducing physician burnout could reduce feelings of racial animus.

“Successful efforts to reduce symptoms of burnout among resident physicians may be useful in reducing health care inequalities,” the researchers write.