Physician Burnout: It Just Keeps Getting Worse

Carol Peckham


January 26, 2015

In This Article

Burnout and Happiness in Physicians: 2013 vs 2015

A national survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 reported that US physicians suffer more burnout than other American workers.[1] This year, in the Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report, 46% of all physicians responded that they had burnout, which is a substantial increase since the Medscape 2013 Lifestyle Report, in which burnout was reported in slightly under 40% of respondents. Burnout is commonly defined as loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. There have been questions about the use of these criteria, however. Some studies have suggested that a low sense of personal accomplishment is not associated with burnout, at least in men.[2,3] In other research, simply including the statements "I feel burned out from my work" and "I have become more callous toward people since I took this job" appears to be a valid method for measuring burnout.[4,5] Given the uncertainty in defining and measuring burnout, the criteria used in the Medscape survey to assess burnout in our physician members provide useful information on the current state of physician morale, which, unfortunately, is low.

The Most and Least Burned-Out Physicians

An editorial published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported burnout rates ranging from 30% to 65% across specialties, with the highest rates incurred by physicians at the front line of care, such as emergency medicine and primary care.[6] The 2015 Medscape survey results reflect this same pattern, with the highest burnout rates found in critical care (53%) and emergency medicine (52%), and with half of all family physicians, internists, and general surgeons reporting burnout. Of even more concern, among internists and family physicians who responded to the Medscape survey, burnout rates rose from about 43% in 2013 to 50% in both groups, an absolute increase of 7% but a 16% rise in incidence in just 2 years. In last year's Medscape Physician Compensation Report, family physicians and internists were two of the specialties most likely to say they would choose medicine again—but also two of the specialties most likely to say they would not choose their own specialty again.

Other research has shown that the prevalence of burnout in primary care physicians (PCPs) has increased over the previous decade not only in the United States but in Europe as well.[3,7] The least burned-out physicians according to our survey are dermatologists (37%), psychiatrists (38%), and pathologists (39%) (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Percentage of burned-out physicians by specialty.


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