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Burnout and doctors: Many suffer, but few are seeking help


Some doctors say they wouldn’t consider getting help and worry about professional ramifications. The latest Medscape survey on burnout and depression sheds light on the mental health challenges in medicine.

More than half of doctors say they’re suffering burnout, but not many are seeking assistance to deal with it, and some won’t even entertain the idea.

Medscape does an annual survey of physicians on burnout and depression, and the latest report illustrates that many physicians are facing struggles with their mental health. In the new survey, released Jan. 27, 53% of doctors said they were experiencing burnout. And nearly a quarter of the physicians surveyed (23%) said they were battling depression.

Perhaps the most disturbing results in a series of troubling findings came when doctors were asked if they were getting professional help to reduce burnout. Only 13% said they were getting assistance from a professional, while almost half (47%), said they weren’t getting help, but they would consider it.

Roughly four out of 10 physicians surveyed (39%) said they weren’t getting help and wouldn’t think about it.

Slightly over half of the physician respondents (51%) said they wouldn’t get assistance for burnout or depression because they perceived it as saying something negative about themselves.

A substantial number of doctors (41%) said they aren’t seeking help because they are concerned their medical boards or employers would find out about it. And 42% of the respondents said they feared others would have less regard for their skills as a professional.

Mental health advocates have urged healthcare professionals to get assistance if they are struggling. Advocates are also pushing for reforms to state licensure laws to drop unnecessary questions about mental health.

Healthcare leaders increasingly say they understand the importance of encouraging clinicians to get mental health. Last year, President Biden signed a law, the Lorna Breen Act, directing more funds and resources to improve mental health in healthcare. The law is named for a physician who died by suicide early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Corey Feist, Breen’s brother-in-law and co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, told Chief Healthcare Executive last year that the healthcare industry must promote mental health, and reforms are needed in state and federal laws to ensure clinicians can get help. He also said doctors and nurses need to understand that some states offer strong protections for those seeking assistance.

Physicians and nurses need to see that they must take care of themselves.

“That is something that does not come naturally to the healthcare workforce that is wired to help others first,” Feist said.

Women and burnout

Women physicians are more likely to say they are struggling with burnout, but plenty of men are struggling as well, the survey found.

Almost two-thirds of female physicians (63%) said they were suffering burnout, while 46% of men said they were battling burnout. Healthcare leaders concerned about burnout say that women physicians often struggle because they are managing demanding careers while also still taking on the majority of child care and family responsibilities.

Bureaucracy and burnout

As in the past, most doctors cited administrative hassles as the top factor contributing to burnout. A solid majority (61%) pointed to bureaucratic tasks as the biggest reason for burnout, while 38% said it was a lack of respect from coworkers.

Specialties with the most burnout

About two out of three physicians in emergency medicine (65%) said they were experiencing burnout, the highest of all specialities, according to the Medscape survey.

After emergency medicine, the specialties with the greatest percentage of doctors experiencing burnout were internal medicine (60%), pediatrics (59%), OB/GYN (58%), and infectious diseases (58%).

These specialties had the lowest percentages of doctors reporting burnout: public health (37%), pathology (39%), cardiology (43%), nephrology (44%), and orthopedics (45%).

Even in these areas, a good number of physicians say they’re struggling.

Samuel T. Edwards, assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Healty & Science University, said in a September forum on physician burnout that healthcare leaders need to place a high priority on mental health and addressing burnout.

“Burnout is an organizational-level phenomenon that requires an organizational-level response,” Edwards said.

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