Physician Health

Burnout is a crisis for young physicians—and their spouses

Len Strazewski , Contributing News Writer

AMA News Wire

Burnout is a crisis for young physicians—and their spouses

Mar 11, 2024

Physician burnout is a crisis in medicine and a serious problem for individual doctors, but it can hurt more than the professionals who have followed their dream of practicing medicine. Research shows that spouses and other family members of physicians with burnout can also pay a price in their physical and mental health.

Researchers from the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, polled 203 physician spouses in 2021, asking whether the burnout symptoms for their doctor spouses splashed back on them and other family members. The research was conducted by Sarah Adamson Grimmer, PhD, and Kristine M. Jacquin, PhD, and published in the journal Mental Health Science.

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Participants were asked to complete a biographical questionnaire to gather information such as their age, cultural background, gender identity, marital status, family structure, living arrangement, mental health history, education, employment status, support system, and financial situation.

Nearly 85% of the respondents were women, and 58% were 25–34 years old. One-third of the respondents were in the 35–44-year-old age group, and nearly all (98%) of the respondents were married, engaged or in a long-term domestic partnership with a physician.

Researchers found that one-third of respondents reported that their physician partner was “emotionally exhausted.” They also asked the physician partners to identify psychological issues related to burnout, such as anxiety, depression, and secondary traumatic stress that they identified in their spouses. They found that the psychological distress that spouses reported were not due to several expected, measurable attributes such as agreeableness, resilience, or demographic characteristics.

Rather, the research indicates that while physician spouses don’t exactly mirror the symptoms of their spouses, they do experience secondary psychological distress when they believe their physician partner is experiencing burnout. In that respect, burnout clearly affects their relationships.

The key dynamic was that the more burned out that spouses perceived their physician partner to be, the more anxiety, depression and secondary trauma that they then experienced.

Reducing physician burnout is a critical component of the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians.

Far too many American physicians experience burnout. That's why the AMA develops resources that prioritize well-being and highlight workflow changes so physicians can focus on what matters—patient care.

Physician husband spurs research

The relationship between burnout and psychological distress did not depend on the presence of “compassion fatigue,” a measure of response to their partners’ conditions, suggesting that even when spouses were exhausted—physically and emotionally—from supporting their physician partner, there was no change in how the spouse experienced the psychological effects of burnout.

“Reasons for experiencing mental health problems are individual‐specific and depend on a wide variety of factors,” the study says.

The researchers said that adjusting to life during medical training is a particularly stressful process for physician families, and the psychological effect from burnout continues to affect their spouses after graduation. As a result, physician families need access to appropriate mental health support, particularly during medical training.

Grimmer said she was drawn to the research topic by her own life and relationships. She is married to a physician and was personally familiar with the experience of physicians as they make their way through training.

“He was the biggest motivator of my doing this research. I witnessed what happens to physicians in training and after, and when it came time for choosing my doctoral dissertation topic, this was a natural,” said Grimmer, who wrote an article for the winter 2024 issue of Physician Family Alliance Motion in Magazine that drew upon her research.

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The magazine is published by the AMA Alliance, the nation’s largest organization representing the physician family. Separately, the AMA Alliance published “Voices from the Homefront: Advice from the Physician Family Experience Survey,” a unique and invaluable collection of comments and advice specifically for physician families. Learn more and get your copy today (registration required).

Grimmer added that the research and any follow-up could lead to a lot of answers to dealing with the consequences of burnout for physicians and their families. “The research definitely indicates that there is a need for some sort of support system for physicians in training and residency,” she said.

Jacquin, Grimmer’s co-author, agreed, advising health care leaders to provide broader mental health support, such as counselors dedicated to physicians and their families, and social workers within the workplace.

The researchers called for access to mental health care to be prioritized in medical school and residency for physicians and their families.

“The AMA has started initiatives to address physician burnout, yet 44% of the spouses in this study thought their partner's residency program or workplace did not prioritize mental health,” the study authors wrote. “Unfortunately, spouses also believed that mental health services were not used by 38% of physicians (who believed they needed it) due to work schedule conflicts or other reasons.”

As part of its “Debunking Regulatory Myths” series, the AMA has set the facts straight on licensing and credentialing bodies’ inquiries about physician mental health. The AMA also has developed an issue brief (PDF) to provide a wide range of advocacy and other resources to help support mental health and wellness.

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