Burnout Remains an Issue for Neurologists

Megan Brooks

March 28, 2013

Forty-one percent of US neurologists feel burned out, according to the Medscape 2013 Physician Lifestyle Report.

Neurologists share eighth place with urologists on the list of most burned-out specialists. The 2 specialties with the highest percentage of burnout were those dealing with severely ill patients — emergency medicine and critical care — while the generalists (family physicians, internists, and general surgeons) round out the top of the list.

The survey, which included responses from over 24,000 US physicians, defined burnout as experiencing at least 1 of the following symptoms: loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.

The report was published online March 28.

Severe Burnout

How severe is US neurologists' burnout? Pretty severe, according to the new results. Neurologists ranked 10th in terms of burnout severity, with a mean severity score of 3.8 on a scale of 1 to 7 (1 = does not interfere with my life, 7 = so severe that I am thinking of leaving medicine altogether).

The 4 top stressors causing burnout among neurologists reported were "too many bureaucratic tasks," "spending too many hours at work," "income not high enough," and "present and future impact of Affordable Care Act," making it clear that external stressors play the major role in physician burnout.

According to the survey, more female than male neurologists feel burnout (56% vs 40%), which is consistent with the general population of physicians.

Burnout rates also differ by age, according to the survey. The rate is lowest in the youngest and oldest neurologists, and it peaks in midlife and holds steady throughout most of the neurologist's career. Thirty-one percent of burned-out neurologists are 46 to 55 years of age, and 26% are aged 56 to 65 years. The burnout rate drops significantly to 6% after age 65, perhaps because of retirement or fewer hours worked.

Not surprisingly, when asked to score their happiness at work, burned-out neurologists scored lower than their more satisfied peers (3.7 vs 5.3, with 1 = poor and 7 = excellent). Burned-out neurologists were much happier at home (5.0) than at work, but less so than their peers reporting no burnout (5.6).

In the 2012 Medscape Physician Lifestyle survey, neurologists tied with gastroenterologists and internists for the least happy of all specialists.

In the latest survey, there was very little difference between burned-out neurologists and their less stressed counterparts in terms of favorite pastimes, with the most popular being spending time with family, physical activity, and travel.

But burnout does affect vacation time, with burned-out neurologists taking less of it. About 44% of burned-out neurologists take only 2 weeks of vacation, if not less, each year compared with only 24% of their happier peers. And only 54% of burned-out neurologists take 2 or more weeks compared with 74% of their peers.

Unstressed neurologists were more likely to provide pro bono clinical care (26% vs 21%), participate in organized religious activities (23% vs 20%), and assist in international clinical work (7% vs 4%). A greater percentage of burned-out neurologists reported never volunteering (31%) compared with their more satisfied colleagues (26%).

In terms of savings, 54% of burned-out neurologists consider themselves to have adequate savings for their age group and professional stage compared with 58% of their less stressed peers. Forty percent of burned-out neurologists claim to have minimal savings to unmanageable debt, compared with 36% of their peers.

Burned-out neurologists also have health concerns; they are less confident about their health than their more satisfied peers; 42% reported being overweight or obese compared with 36% of non–-burned-out respondents.

More than half of all neurologists who responded to questions on exercise said they exercise at least 2 times a week, but the percentage was lower among burned-out neurologists (56% vs 64% of their less stressed peers). In addition, 38% of the burned-out group exercised once a week at most compared with 31% of the less stressed group.

Most neurologists are married or live with a partner, don't smoke, and have very moderate drinking habits, with little difference seen between those who are burned-out and those who aren't.