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Medical Burnout, an Epidemic among Healthcare Professionals


By HolaDoctor

Key Points

  • This extreme burnout affects all specialties, and it occurs in all healthcare settings.
  • Just as workplace chaos can trigger chronic burnout.
  • A loss of empathy, and even negative attitudes, toward patients are among the symptoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated what was already an an international trend: the physical and emotional burnout of healthcare professionals. This is not a matter of sporadic fatigue that goes away after a good night’s rest. Rather, it is a complex syndrome that, according to studies, affects more than 50% of the professionals, both doctors and residents, whose mission is to treat and cure others.

This has been a long-standing crisis in healthcare systems. It is related to systemic problems, such as chaotic workplaces and a lack of control over workload; a top-down structure that places the burden of responsibility for decision-making, often involving matters of life and death, on physicians who are still in training; and workplace and economic stress that means that all physicians are potentially exhausted and chronically stressed.

The medical literature indicates that, in addition to exhaustion, the most visible symptoms of this syndrome are:

  • A loss of empathy, and even negative attitudes, toward patients.
  • Frustration due to a persistent feeling of not achieving personal goals.

This extreme burnout affects all specialties, not just those considered most stressful such as surgery, trauma, or anesthesiology. And it occurs in all healthcare settings, from physician offices to large hospitals.

Recent research conducted in 15 Latin American countries with rheumatologists, a branch of medicine considered to be low-risk, revealed a burnout rate of 42% to 51%—half of these specialists. This type of burnout was associated with younger age, long working hours, low satisfaction, less happiness, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, income, presence of comorbidities, and low self-esteem.

This endemic condition afflicting the healthcare workforce does not only impact healthcare professionals’ personal life. It has a ripple effect as well: it affects patient health outcomes and healthcare organizations and systems.

A survey of more than 20,000 physicians in the United States found that burnout increased from 45% to 60% between 2019 and 2021.

Another consequence of this crisis is the physicians who are leaving the profession. A report produced by Elsevier Health, “Clinicians of the Future,” revealed that 47% of healthcare workers in the United States plan to leave their jobs by 2025. This exodus will cause another problem: a shortage of professionals in various branches of medicine.

Strategies to Address this Crisis

Experts in healthcare wellbeing say that the problem of burnout is definitely more than the sum of a series of personal crises. Rather, it is the product of a system that needs to change some of its rules of the game.

Christine Sinsky, MD, vice president of personal satisfaction at the American Medical Association (AMA), says, “While burnout manifests in individuals, it originates in systems. Burnout is not the result of a deficiency of resilience among physicians, but rather is due to the systems in which physicians work.”

The AMA has a recovery plan that includes critical actions that should be taken to improve physician well-being. These include:

  • Assess underlying drivers of burnout.
  • Understand unique challenges to physician and care team well-being.
  • Reduce drivers of stress within an organization.
  • Proactively initiate programs (such as wellness or peer-to-peer networking) and infrastructure that support and promote well-being.
  • For example, offer health professionals the opportunity to provide an assessment to anonymously and confidentially express and share their concerns.

Just as workplace chaos can trigger chronic burnout, efficient teamwork, coordination, equitable distribution of the workload, and worker appreciation have the opposite effect.

Implementing strategies and solutions to meet distinctive needs can lead to positive changes. According to the AMA and other medical institutions, these include:

  • Increased patient satisfaction
  • Better morale
  • Improved quality of care
  • Reduction of medical errors
  • Improved recruitment and retention

This article was produced using content from original studies and reports and from other medical research, as well as healthcare and public health sources, highlighted in related links throughout the article.