Is Your Doctor Burned Out?

by Alanna Nuñez for

How can you tell if your doctor is burned out?
How can you tell if your doctor is burned out?

Job burnout can strike nearly any occupation, but a recent study shows that doctors may suffer more than those in other professions. The research, which was published in Archives of Internal Medicine, looked at a survey of 7,288 physicians that was conducted in June 2011. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association asked physicians to fill out a questionnaire about their feelings of burnout, such as whether they felt feelings of "cynicism" and "emotional exhaustion," or whether they were losing enthusiasm for the job.

The questionnaire, called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), is considered the gold standard when it comes to measuring occupational burnout. In addition to the MBI, doctors also filled out a shorter questionnaire. Researchers then compared their answers to those of the general population.

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The results are grim: There's a 50 percent chance that your doctor may suffer from burnout-that's about 10 percent higher than the general population of employed adults. Differences in the rate of burnout varied by specialty: Unexpectedly, emergency medicine, general internal medicine, family practitioners, and those in neurology reported the highest rates.

"There have been other studies done on doctor burnout, but we assumed it was the surgical specialties who would be at primary risk," lead author and physician Tait Shanafelt told USA Today. "Instead we found out it's the physicians on the front line of care who are at the greatest risk."

We talked to Kenneth M. Ludmerer, M.D., author of Time to Heal and a medical historian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, to get his top tips on spotting the signs of burnout-and what you should do if you suspect your doctor is exhausted.

"Burnout has a very specific connotation," Dr. Ludmerer says. "It includes cynicism, despondency, or loss of interest. If you notice a sudden aloofness in your doctor where he or she used to be enthusiastic, or if he or she is someone who once cared and doesn't seem to now, your doctor could have burnout."

While it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of burnout, Dr. Ludmerer suggests that a large part of it has to do with doctors feeling that they are "unable to do good work."

"We work in a system that has evolved in such a way that physicians feel they can't do the work they need to," he says. "Doctors need to have enough time to take care of their patients. They need to work in a system that doesn't penalize them for being thorough."

Conditions of work matter to everyone, he continues, and problems with the healthcare system go beyond financing. Instead, the current system focuses more on getting patients in and out quickly.

"Now, to be clear, when I say thorough, I don't mean ordering every single test if it's not necessary," Dr. Ludmerer says. "I mean being detailed and not cutting corners."

Bottom line? We need a system that respects doctors' time and allows them to focus on the quality of care they're using to treat patients, he says.

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If you suspect your doctor might be suffering from burnout because you're not getting very good care or the quality of care you're receiving has changed, it's OK to speak up.

"You can politely ask, 'Hey, is everything all right?'" Dr. Ludmerer says. "And you can move with your feet: If you're not getting the care you think you deserve, search for another doctor."

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