There has been a great deal of evolving research and writing about physician burnout. Horror stories about long work hours, frustrations with working environments, administrative challenges are everywhere – social media, medical journals, mainstream media. While burnout is not new, the increased attention and consequences in the health care system are exposing not only the importance of physician well-being but also the impact of burnout on patient care.
What is burnout?
Burnout was first identified in the 1970s and further refined by Christina Maslach, PhD, as a syndrome that is due to prolonged exposure to chronic interpersonal stress with three key dimensions that include 1) overwhelming exhaustion, 2) feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a 22-item questionnaire that was developed in the 1980s has become the standard survey in research settings for the identification of burnout. However, a two-item questionnaire has been utilized with good correlation to the domains of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and includes: 1) I feel burned out from my work and 2) I have become more callous toward people since I took this job. Responses are graded on a scale from never to everyday with five points in between; the likelihood of burnout is high when responses are once a week or more frequent (i.e., a few times a week or everyday).
Why are we talking about burnout?
Burnout has far-reaching consequences. It not only affects the individual but also that person’s interpersonal relationships with family and friends. Additionally, burnout affects patient care and the overall health care system.
Let’s imagine the scenario in which you arrive at your office on a Monday morning and open your electronic health record (EHR). You tend to arrive at work about 45 minutes prior to your first patient to try to catch up with messages. As you wait for your computer to login (5 minutes? 8 minutes? 12 minutes?) and Citrix to connect, you are eating your breakfast bar and drinking mediocre coffee because you still haven’t had time to fix your coffee machine at home (should you just order a new one on Amazon and contribute to the world’s growing trash problem?). Once you login to your EHR, the first three messages are about missing charges and charts still left open – yes, you haven’t corrected the resident’s note from clinic on Friday afternoon, yet. The next two messages are about insurance denials for a prescription or a procedure or an imaging study. You decide that perhaps you should change gears and check your work email. The first email is a reminder that vacation requests for the next 6 months are due by end of business today and any requests made after today must go through some administrative approval process that seems inefficient and almost punitive (mainly because you forgot to discuss this with your partner and family and you are feeling somewhat guilty but resentful of this arbitrary deadline that was announced last week). Your pager promptly buzzes to announce that the first patient has arrived and is ready for you to consult. As you walk over to the procedure area, you remind yourself to finalize the resident’s note from Friday, file the missing charges, close those charts and find some reasonable evidence to justify the medication/test/procedure so that your patient is not saddled with a large bill. And as you walk up to your first patient of the morning, you are greeted by a nurse who indicates the patient doesn’t have a ride home postprocedure and what do you want to do?
Does any of this sound remotely familiar? In today’s medical practice, there are multiple factors that contribute toward burnout, including excessive clerical burden, inefficient EHR and computer systems, the sense of loss of control and flexibility, along with problems associated with work-life balance.