Physician Health

Physician burnout: Which medical specialties feel the most stress

An online survey of doctors finds an overall physician burnout rate of 44 percent, with 15 percent saying they experienced colloquial or clinical forms of depression. Two new entries in the top six specialties with the highest rates of burnout compared with last year’s edition of the survey provide medical students and residents with new insight into their future careers.

More than 15,000 physicians from 29 specialties responded to the survey—conducted by the Medscape news website and called the “National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report 2019.” The survey asked about the prevalence of physician burnout factors and how they affect doctors’ lives. This year, while not at the top, plastic surgery saw the biggest increase in physician burnout, climbing from 23 percent to 36 percent.

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Two other specialties also saw double digit percentage-point surges. Diabetes and endocrinology rose 12 percentage points from 35 percent to 47 percent. And urology, which had the highest reported burnout, hopped from 44 percent to 54 percent—a 10-point increase.

A recent paper—published by the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Global Health Institute—has documented widespread physician burnout and illustrates the growing recognition that an energized, engaged and resilient physician workforce is essential to achieving national health goals. Yet burnout is more common among physicians than other U.S. workers as mounting obstacles to patient care contribute to emotional fatigue, depersonalization and loss of enthusiasm among physicians.

The AMA is urging Congress, hospitals, and health plans to recognize the coming crisis as an early warning sign of health system dysfunction. America’s physicians are the canary in the coal mine.

In the Medscape survey, last year, critical care, neurology, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine and emergency medicine topped the list. However, this year the highest percentage of physician burnout occurred among these medical specialties:

  • Urology: 54 percent.
  • Neurology: 53 percent.
  • Physical medicine and rehabilitation: 52 percent.
  • Internal medicine: 49 percent.
  • Emergency medicine: 48 percent.
  • Family medicine: 48 percent.

The lowest rates of burnout were reported by physicians in these medical specialties:

  • Public health and preventive medicine: 28 percent
  • Nephrology: 32 percent
  • Pathology: 33 percent.
  • Ophthalmology: 34 percent.
  • Otolaryngology: 36 percent.
  • Plastic surgery: 36 percent.

What factors lead to physician burnout

Almost 60 percent of respondents chose “too many bureaucratic tasks,” such as charting and paperwork, as the leading cause of burnout. Spending too many hours at work (34 percent) was also a leading cause of burnout with 48 percent of physicians working 51–60 hours each week.

The medical specialties with physicians who are more likely to work long hours were:

  • General surgery: 77 percent.
  • Urology: 76 percent.
  • Cardiology: 72 percent.
  • Pulmonary medicine: 68 percent.
  • Nephrology: 68 percent.

When asked how they personally cope with burnout, almost half of respondents chose exercise, while 43 percent said they talk with their family or close friends. Unfortunately, though, some physicians’ coping mechanisms were less than ideal, with 42 percent stating they isolate themselves from others, while 32 percent eat junk food and 23 percent drink alcohol.

Committed to making physician burnout a thing of the past, the AMA has studied, and is addressing, issues causing and fueling physician burnout—including time constraints, technology and regulations—to better understand and reduce the challenges physicians face. The AMA assesses an organization’s well-being, and offers guidance and targeted solutions to support physician well-being and satisfaction.

The AMA Ed Hub™—your center for personalized learning from sources you trust—offers educational resources and CME on professional well-being that can help you prevent physician burnout, create the organizational foundation for joy in medicine, create a strong team culture and improve practice efficiency. Meanwhile, the AMA’s STEPS Forward™ open-access platform offers innovative strategies that allow physicians and their staff to thrive in the new health care environment.

Addressing the impact of burnout on the individual physician is an important step, yet organizational factors influence physician satisfaction as well. The STEPS Forward module, “Creating the Organizational Foundation for Joy in Medicine™,” provides tools to guide the executive leadership team in creating a joyful practice environment and thriving workforce for all physicians.