Diving brief:

  • Already high levels of physician burnout have increased in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with emergency physicians reporting the largest increase, according to a Medscape survey. Burnout affected 47% of physicians in the survey, up five percentage points from the previous year. Among emergency physicians, the number rose to 60%, from 43% in 2020.
  • Still, most doctors didn’t directly blame the pandemic for their mental health issues. Stress related to treating patients with COVID-19 was cited as a factor by only 10% of physicians, and social distancing and societal issues related to the pandemic were cited by 12% of respondents.
  • On the contrary, an overload of bureaucratic tasks, such as record keeping and paperwork, was the main reason for physician burnout, affecting 60% of respondents.

Overview of the dive:

Long-term job stress, otherwise known as burnout, can lead to exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment from job responsibilities when left unresolved. People suffering from burnout often lack a sense of personal accomplishment in their work.

The majority of doctors who reported burnout in the Medscape survey said it affected most aspects of their lives, with 54% saying the impact was strong to severe. More than two-thirds (68%) said that burnout negatively affected their relationships. Tempers flared faster, they felt guilty for spending less time with children due to stress, and there was less interest in romance.

In a related report from the Medscape survey, about six in 10 doctors said they were happy outside of work, up from eight in 10 before the pandemic.

The report, released on Friday, suggests that the prevalence of burnout among doctors increased in the second year of the pandemic due to the reopening of hospital wards and the temporary closure of doctors’ offices in the first year, while that burnout rates remained stable compared to the previous year. Staff reduction and anxiety stemming from worry about infecting family members were the reasons cited for the added stress in the second year.

“Although the pandemic was incredibly difficult for physicians, the second year – when society reopened – proved more difficult to navigate,” said Leslie Kane, senior director of Medscape Business of Medicine.

One in five doctors who participated in the survey also admitted to being depressed, and around a quarter (24%) of these practitioners said they were clinically depressed. Depression caused 34% to get irritated more easily with patients, 23% to be less motivated to take careful notes about patients, 14% to express frustration in front of patients, and 11% to say they did mistakes they wouldn’t normally make.

About half of physicians with depression (49%) said they could cope with it on their own; 43% said they would not seek help for fear of being disclosed to the medical board. One in five said they fear being rejected by the medical profession.

“It remains a major concern that doctors with depression feel they have to go it alone, for fear of professional consequences,” Kane said.

Medscape surveyed more than 13,000 doctors in 29 specialties between June and September last year. After emergency physicians, burnout was most prevalent among critical care physicians, with 56% reporting experiencing this issue, followed by obstetricians/gynecologists at 53%, infectious disease specialists at 51%, and family physicians at 51%.

The main reasons cited for burnout, after excessive bureaucratic tasks, were lack of respect from administrators, colleagues or staff (39%), long working hours (34%), lack of autonomy ( 32%) and insufficient salary (28%). Sixty percent of women said they were more stressed now than during the COVID-19 quarantine months, while 50% of men said they were more exhausted now.

To cope with burnout, 48% of doctors say they exercise, 45% isolate themselves, 41% talk with family or friends, 41% sleep, 35% play or listen to music, 35% eat junk food, 24% drink alcohol and 21% have turned to binge eating. Participants could choose more than one response.

When asked what would help reduce burnout, 39% of physicians said more manageable schedules, 38% said increased compensation, 36% said more respect from employers and colleagues , 36% said increased autonomy, 33% said lighter patient loads and 33% said more support staff.

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