Many articles about physician burnout and more alarmingly depression and suicide include chilling statistics; however, the data are limited. The same study from Medscape about burnout broken down by medical specialty often is cited.1 Although dermatology fares better than many specialties in this research, the percentages are still abysmal.
I am writing as a physician, for physicians. I do not want to quote the data to you. If you are reading this article, you have probably felt some burnout, even transiently. Maybe you even feel it now, at this very moment. Physicians are competitive capable people. I do not want to present numbers and statistics that make you question the validity of your feelings, whether you fit with the average statistics, or make you try to calculate how many of your friends or colleagues match these statistics. The numbers are terrible, no matter how you look at them, and all trends show them worsening with time.
What is burnout?
To simply define burnout as fatigue or high workload would be to undervalue the term. Physicians are trained through college, medical school, and countless hours of residency to cope with both challenges. Maslach et al2 defined burnout as “a psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job” leading to “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
Who does burnout affect?
Physician burnout affects both the patient and the physician. It has been demonstrated that physician burnout leads to lower patient satisfaction and care as well as higher risk for medical errors. There are the more obvious and direct effects on the physician, with affected physicians having much higher employment turnover and risk for addiction and suicide.3 One could argue that there are even more downstream effects of burnout, including physicians’ families who may be directly affected and even societal effects when fully trained physicians leave the clinical arena to pursue other careers.
How do you recognize when you are burnt out?
The first time I recognized that I was burnt out was in medical school. I understood my burnout through the lens of my undergraduate training in anthropology as compassion fatigue, a term that has been used to describe the lack of empathy that can develop when any individual is presented with an overwhelming tragedy or horror. When you are in survival mode—waking up just to survive the next day or clinic shift or call—you are surviving but hardly thriving as a physician.3 I believe that humans have a tremendous capacity for survival, but when we are in survival mode we have little energy leftover for the pleasures of life, from family to hobbies. I would similarly argue that in survival mode we have limited ability to appreciate the pain and suffering our patients are experiencing. Survival mode limits our ability as physicians to connect with our patients and to engage in the full spectrum of emotion in our time outside of our job.