Physicians React: Burnout Rates Are Alarming, So Who Should Drive Change?

Jon McKenna

August 05, 2022

When physicians lament that they feel burned out at work, what exactly do they mean?

Here's how one doctor describes conditions that lead to burnout: "I barely spend enough time with most patients, just running from one to the next; and then after work, I spend hours documenting, charting, dealing with reports. I feel like an overpaid clerk."

Physicians experiencing work burnout don't always find relief at home. "Home is just as busy and chaotic as work. I can never relax," another physician says.

The Medscape Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2022: Stress, Anxiety and Anger report sparked impassioned responses from physicians on several fronts. In that report, 47% of responding physicians said they were experiencing burnout, up from 42% in our year-earlier survey.

Few Doubt the Burnout/Depression Problem

While opinions differ about the chief culprits, commenters lamented rather than questioned the extent of burnout and depression among physicians.

"What is striking to me is, 24% of our colleagues are suffering from clinical depression," one doctor worried. "This is a serious matter. Individuals need to address a work-life balance. Find ways to seek help, and [develop] a coping mechanism."

The report's findings also alarmed another physician, who said: "To me, it does not matter which medical specialty has the greatest rate of burnout or depression. What I see is that between 60% and 26% [depending on the specialty] of ALL physicians ― after long study, work, and probably debt ― are burned out.

"If you have bright children, tell them to run from even considering a career in medicine."

Two commenters argued that hospitals and other healthcare organizations need to step forward more assertively to address physician mental exhaustion. "A call-in counselling service is not enough. After all, we are the breadwinners for them," one said.

Not everyone was willing to put the onus on healthcare employers, however.

"I am sympathetic, but medical schools should do a better job in choosing and teaching students that being a doctor requires having a vocation for it. That's not the same as being a do-gooder," one physician argued. "It's having a passion for medicine and practicing it."

The Right Employer and Community Help Doctors

How possible is it to put together the right combination of employer and vibrant community so as to avoid burnout? That question generated a lively back-and-forth.

"Get your degree, do your residency, then say goodbye to corporate medicine and do direct primary care," one doctor advised. "You will pay off your loans and have fun doing it!"

Another physician shot back, "Good luck launching an independent practice in a community with amenities that let you lead a full and enjoyable life away from work."

Research shows that a healthy work-life balance and a rewarding personal life positively affect burnout and depression among physicians. Some believe relaxation is more attainable in self-employment as opposed to corporate employment, but that assumption has not always proved true. The right choice for a doctor's mental health is sometimes elusive and is affected by many factors.

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