At least 45.8% of physicians have one symptom of burnout, according to a national survey of burnout in physicians from all specialty disciplines. The study is published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine.

According to other studies, burnout may have an impact on the quality of care and elevate the risk for medical errors in addition to having adverse effects on physicians, such as problem drinking, broken relationships and thoughts of suicide.

For their study, Tait D. Shanafelt, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and her team involved 7,288 physicians from the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile and for comparison, a sample of 3,442 working U.S. adults from the general population as control group. 26.7% of physicians responded to the survey.

According to the findings, 37.9% of U.S. physicians reported high emotional exhaustion, 29.4% had high depersonalization, and 12.4% felt a low sense of personal accomplishment. The risk of having symptoms of burnout was 27.8% in the control group compared with 37.9% of the physicians. In addition, 40.2% of physicians reported to be dissatisfied with their work-life balance compared with only 23.2% in those in the control group.

The team also noted differences in burnout depending on special sectors of emergency medicine. For instance, the highest burnout rates were noted amongst physicians working in general internal medicine, neurology and family medicine, whilst those working in pathology, dermatology, general pediatrics and preventive medicine displayed the lowest burnout rates.

The team concludes:

"Collectively, the findings of this national study indicate that (1) the prevalence of burnout among U.S. physicians is at an alarming level, (2) physicians in specialties at the front line of care access (emergency medicine, general internal medicine and family medicine) are at greatest risk, (3) physicians work longer hours and have greater struggles with work-life integration than other U.S. workers and (4) after adjusting for hours worked per week, higher levels of education and professional degrees seem to reduce the risk for burnout in fields outside of medicine, whereas a degree in medicine (M.D., or D.O.) increases the risk. The fact that almost 1 in 2 U.S. physicians has symptoms of burnout implies that the origins of this problem are rooted in the environment and care delivery system rather than in the personal characteristics of a few susceptible individuals. Policy makers and health care organizations must address the problem of physician burnout for the sake of physicians and their patients."

They indicate that more research needs to be conducted in order to gain more insight into physician burnout and to develop interventions.

Written by Petra Rattue