- Levels of physician burnout, already high, escalated during year two of the COVID-19 pandemic, with emergency medicine doctors reporting the biggest increase, a Medscape survey found. Burnout affected 47% of physicians in the survey, up five percentage points from the year before. Among emergency physicians, the number jumped to 60%, from 43% in 2020.
- Still, most doctors did not blame the pandemic directly for their mental health struggles. Stress from treating COVID-19 patients was cited as a factor by just 10% of physicians, and social distancing and societal issues related to the pandemic were named by 12% of respondents.
- Rather, an overload of bureaucratic tasks, such as charting and paperwork, was the doctors' No. 1 reason for burnout, affecting 60% of those polled.
Long-term job-related stress, otherwise known as occupational burnout, can lead to exhaustion, cynicism and detachment from work responsibilities when unresolved. Those suffering from burnout often lack a sense of personal accomplishment from their work.
The majority of physicians who reported burnout in the Medscape survey said it touched most aspects of their lives, with 54% indicating the impact was strong to severe. More than two-thirds (68%) said burnout negatively affected their relationships. Tempers flared more quickly, they felt guilty about spending less time with kids due to stress, and there was less interest in romance.
In a related report from the Medscape survey, about six in 10 physicians said they were happy outside of work, compared with eight in 10 before the pandemic.
The report, released Friday, suggested the prevalence of burnout among physicians increased in the second year of the pandemic due to the re-opening of hospital services and doctors' offices temporarily shuttered in year one, when burnout rates held steady with the year before. Reduced staffing and anxiety stemming from worry about infecting family members were reasons cited for the added stress in year two.
"Although the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for physicians, the second year — when society reopened — proved more difficult to navigate," said Leslie Kane, senior director of Medscape Business of Medicine.
One in five doctors in the survey also admitted to being depressed, and about a quarter (24%) of those practitioners said they were clinically depressed. Depression caused 34% to become more easily exasperated with patients, 23% to be less motivated to take careful patient notes, 14% to express frustration in front of patients and 11% to say they made errors they ordinarily would not make.
About half of physicians with depression (49%) indicated they could deal with it on their own; 43% said they would not seek help due to fear of disclosure to the medical board. One in five said they feared they would be shunned by the medical profession.
"It remains a major concern that doctors with depression feel they must go it alone, for fear of professional consequences," Kane said.
Medscape surveyed more than 13,000 physicians across 29 specialties between June and September of last year. After emergency physicians, burnout was most prevalent among critical care doctors, with 56% reporting they struggled with the issue, followed by obstetrician/gynecologists at 53%, infectious disease specialists at 51% and family doctors at 51%.
The top reasons cited for burnout, after excessive bureaucratic tasks, were lack of respect from administrators, colleagues or staff (39%), long hours at work (34%), lack of autonomy (32%) and insufficient pay (28%). Sixty percent of women said they were more stressed now than during the quarantine months of COVID-19, while 50% of men said they were more burned out now.
To cope with burnout, 48% of physicians said they exercised, 45% isolated themselves, 41% talked with family or friends, 41% slept, 35% played or listened to music, 35% ate junk food, 24% drank alcohol and 21% turned to binge eating. Participants could choose more than one response.
When asked what would help to reduce burnout, 39% of physicians said more manageable schedules, 38% said increased compensation, 36% said more respect from employers and colleagues, 36% said increased autonomy, 33% said lighter patient loads and 33% said more support staff.