By Shannon Pettypiece
— About 1 in 2 doctors are burned out, showing signs of emotional exhaustion and little interest in work as patient loads increase, U.S. researchers found.
Doctors working in emergency, family and internal medicine were the most likely to feel drained, according to the study released Tuesday in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers said burnout also was tied to long hours, with 37 percent of physicians working more than 60 hours a week.
The number of doctors reporting feeling burned out is surprising and troubling, said Tait Shanafelt, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and lead study author. He said the trend may cause physicians to quit or reduce their workload just as demand for doctors is increasing with the aging population. The issue may get worse as 32 million Americans are expected to get health insurance by 2014 under a new U.S. law, increasing the number of people seeking medical care, he said.
"Right at a time when we are trying to provide care to people who are uninsured and projecting workforce shortages we are seeing this burnout rate creep in, which may cause physicians to reduce workloads and consider early retirement," Shanafelt said.
He added that burnout has also been linked to medical errors and worse patient care in previous studies.
The study found that 46 percent of doctors show at least one sign of being worn out. Shanafelt said the burnout was about 10 percent higher than in the population as a whole. Unlike with other professions, more education isn't linked to a lower risk of feeling drained among doctors, the study found.
Researchers collected responses from 7,288 doctors across all practice areas to measure levels of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and sense of professional accomplishment. The data was compared with surveys of the general population.
There was no increased rate of depression or suicide among doctors compared with the general population, a sign that the burnout is specific to the work environment, Shanafelt said. He said more research is needed to determine proper treatment.
Doctors have been increasing the number of patients they see to make up for reduced reimbursement from health insurers and the government, Shanafelt said. Physicians in private practice are also dealing with more bureaucracy, such as a push by the government to implement electronic medical records.
"If this were only 5 percent, we could say that these are just people who don't manage their stress well or need additional training," Shanafelt said. "But with almost one out of every two physicians, we have to say there must be something about their environment contributing to this."