Why physician burnout happens and what we can do to prevent it

October 1, 2016

There’s no doubt about it: Physician burnout is real and it affects an alarming number of us across the nation. While physicians focus on their patients, the practice environment is filled with invisible stresses that weigh on physicians and cause burnout.

Editor's Note: Welcome to Medical Economics' blog section which features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for bloggers to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The series continues with this blog by Henry Anhalt, DO, who is in private practice treating pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes. He is also chief medical officer for T1D Exchange, a nonprofit organization. The views expressed in these blogs are those of their respective contributors and do not represent the views of Medical Economics or UBM Medica.

 

Dr. AnhaltThere’s no doubt about it: Physician burnout is real and it affects an alarming number of us across the nation. While physicians focus on their patients, the practice environment is filled with invisible stresses that weigh on physicians and cause burnout.

 

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So, what can we do about it?

Burnout vs. Stress

First, let’s explore exactly what burnout is to us. We’ve all heard the term “burnout” in many contexts before, but what does it mean when applied to our role as physicians?

 

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In my opinion, while we’ve all experienced stress, for the most part, after some time away or a change in a chaotic schedule, our energy returns and we’re motivated to work again. Burnout, on the other hand, can cause both physical and emotional exhaustion and those who experience it are not able to recover with time away. Burnout also causes those dealing with it to develop a negative or cynical attitude, job dissatisfaction and a reduced sense of accomplishment in their work.

What causes burnout?

While there are many causes of burnout, I believe the changing face of the doctor-patient relationship-now impeded by burdensome administrative tasks-the increasing reliance on technology while delivering care and the mandate to cut costs are quickly leading to burnout for many physicians. While each have a hand in causing burnout, together, they are a recipe for disaster.

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As a medical professional, work-life-balance can easily become nonexistent, if you allow it. Today, there are tools and technologies where we can stay connected to our patients and families 24/7. I “follow” many of my patients’ daily blood sugars, for instance. It’s not unusual for me to text or call a patient when I see his or her blood sugar dip into hypoglycemic numbers to be sure it’s being treated.

 

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Following my patients’ blood sugars helps me develop a better picture of their health away from my office, and increases the doctor-patient bond I share with them, but it certainly blurs the lines between my professional and personal life. And I wonder how this will continue to evolve as technologies that connect us with each other and with our personal health grow more sophisticated.

Burdensome administrative tasks and external political pressures can also take a toll on work-life-balance. The additional paperwork and documentation required to follow regulations-not to mention get paid-is a constant challenge. Many physicians handle documentation after work, causing them to leave the office later, and hence, negatively tip their work-life-balance.

 

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We all know that technology offers many benefits with work, but let’s face it, EHR is a double-edged sword. When treating my patients, EHR information is helpful and often supports my decision-making processes. On the other hand, EHR can get in the way of the doctor-patient relationship. I sometimes feel as though I used to maintain much more eye contact than today, where I’m often keying information into my laptop instead. Worse, EHR record-keeping can increase the length of each patient visit, rather than effectively managing patient visit time.

Next: What can we do about it?

 

What can we do about it?

As doctors, there is often a lot of pressure to try to be superheroes. We take care of so many sick people, and yet rarely do we focus on our own needs and our own health.

Since burnout is long-lasting, and can’t always be cured with some time away, there are a few tips I recommend to help reduce some of the stresses from my practice. First, I recommend hiring a scribe, if you haven’t already. Medical scribes can help reduce the amount of administrative tasks that keep physicians in the office after-hours.

 

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Additionally, when possible, I recommend hiring an expert to implement your EHR system. Oftentimes, vendors will provide this service for you, and may also teach you how to use it more efficiently to benefit from it.

Lastly, although it may be difficult at times, I try to remind myself on a daily basis why I became a physician in the first place. Although administrative burdens, external pressures and a challenging work-life balance cause stress, I know I’m helping my patients lead happier, healthier lives.