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Vacation frustration: 7 out of 10 doctors worked on days off

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Most physicians are doing at least some work when they’re supposed to be away, and researchers say it adds to burnout. Some are taking very little time off.

Physicians are already battling burnout, so when it’s time to go on vacation, it’s safe to assume doctors are ready to relax and recharge.

Image credit: ©Pattarisara - stock.adobe.com

Most doctors are doing at least some work on their vacation, and that contributes to higher levels of burnout, according to a new study. Some doctors are taking very little vacation time. (Image credit: ©Pattarisara - stock.adobe.com)

But most doctors are doing at least some work on vacation, according to a study published Jan. 12 in Jama Network Open.

In a study of more than 3,000 U.S. physicians, 7 out of 10 doctors (70.4%) said they worked on a vacation day, performing tasks related to patient care, researchers found. Roughly 1 in 3 doctors said they worked 30 minutes or more on a typical vacation day.

Part of the problem may be tied to a lack of help in coverage while doctors are trying to get away. A little less than half (49.1%) of the doctors surveyed said they had full electronic health record inbox coverage while they were on vacation.

Many doctors aren’t taking much vacation time at all, according to the study.

One in five doctors (19.9%) said they took 5 days of vacation or less, while a solid majority (59.6%) said they took 15 or fewer days of vacation.

Women were more likely than men to do at least 30 minutes of work on a vacation (38% to 30%), and there were other differences by gender.

Female physicians had fewer vacation days, with 62% of women taking 15 or fewer days of vacation, compared to 58.1% of male doctors. Women were also more likely to take five or fewer days than men (21.4% to 19%).

The authors said their study is the first, to their knowledge, to take a widespread look at physician behavior on vacation. Christine Sinsky, vice president of professional satisfaction with the American Medical Association, was the lead author. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, the University of Colorado, and the Mayo Clinic contributed to the study.

“Our current data suggest that most physicians are taking 3 or fewer weeks of vacation per year and not fully disconnecting while on vacation,” the authors wrote. “These vacation behaviors are factors likely to exacerbate the effects of chronic work overload associated with long work hours and further heighten the risk of burnout. This chronic work overload is associated with higher rates of burnout and lower professional fulfillment.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who took more vacation time and were able to avoid work while on vacation reported lower levels of burnout, the researchers said. Doctors who had full EHR inbox coverage while on vacation had “higher odds of professional fulfillment,” the authors wrote.

Doctors are facing high levels of burnout, healthcare leaders have said. Researchers reported that 63% of physicians experienced burnout in 2021, compared with 38% in 2020, according to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The Physicians Foundation’s 2023 Survey of America’s Current and Future Physicians found that six in 10 doctors report feelings of burnout. That’s up from four out of 10 doctors in 2018.

The authors of the vacation study note that doctors need time to recharge because they are working a lot of hours. The typical full-time doctor is working 54 hours per week, 10 hours more than the average American worker, they noted. In addition, nearly 41% of doctors are working 55 or more hours per week.

The researchers note that if doctors aren’t getting better rest, they could be more likely to make medical errors, which could hurt patient care and add to healthcare costs.

Health systems and providers should encourage their doctors to take their vacations, and leave the work behind.

“Normalizing the expectation that physicians take time off and fully disconnect from clinical work while away may also be beneficial at both the organizational and professional level,” the authors wrote. “Such efforts may be critical and tangible system-based approaches to mitigate the high rates of occupational burnout among physicians.”

Doctors in anesthesiology, radiology, radiation oncology, and pathology were the most likely to take more than 3 weeks of vacation. Physicians in family medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, general internal medicine, and emergency medicine were the least likely to take more than 3 weeks of vacation.


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