Burnout among doctors is not something new. In fact, way before the pandemic, 69% of physicians reported they were somewhat or incredibly happy in 2020, before the pandemic started.
This number drastically fell to 49% when COVID-19 stepped in. This is a statistic that we need to be aware of.
For many of us, we embarked on our journey in medicine with naïve optimism. We stepped into medical school thinking about the many ways we can help people. Often, medical students had significant experiences in their life that made them want to pursue this path. Sure enough, we have had a grasp of what is to come, but the passion and the will to persevere burned on brightly. Often, we ignored our own physical and mental needs because we were typically ambitious, young, and strong.
The pandemic has worsened burnout among physicians into alarming proportions. This has even led to a significant number of suicide cases among physicians. This is more than just burnout affecting happiness, career satisfaction,
Medscape surveyed 12,339 physicians in more than 29 specialties from Aug. 30 to Nov. 5, 2020, and the results were shocking:
- In 2019, urologists had the highest burnout rates. When COVID stepped in in 2020, critical care specialists now had the highest burnout rates overall specialties, at 51%. This must be due to a novel disease with everyone in a race against time to find a cure. Without a guide or studies to direct treatment and management, critical care specialists are burdened with finding solutions for COVID cases when internists and family doctors fail to do so.
- COVID worsened burnout rates among physicians. A staggering 79% claim that their burnout started way before the pandemic. This shows that it is not just the pandemic, which is responsible for burnout rates, but a whole other factor that doctors face daily.
- Three major factors are contributing to physician burnout: 1) excessive bureaucratic tasks (58%), 2) excess working hours (37%); and, 3) lack of respect from leaders or colleagues (37%). (It is noteworthy that insufficient compensation or reimbursement only comes in at 4th place at 32%.)
- Although female physicians consistently suffer more burnout than male physicians, the numbers grow further by 2020 – the gap widened to 51% (women) vs. 36% (men). This is attributed to the responsibilities that women assume at home. Women are considered to take on more responsibilities in the family than men, which, during the pandemic, now includes (but not limited to) being their children’s teacher and babysitting because their parents are no longer allowed to go out babysit. However, the worst fear that doctors encounter is going home and bringing the virus to their families.
- Some physicians also suffer from suicidal ideation, equivalent to a staggering 13% in the 2021 survey.
- Among all physicians in the survey, 47% report that their workplace does not offer a program to counter stress and burnout.
It is crystal clear that mental health challenges can happen to anyone – even for us physicians. The physician’s innate and constant drive to be better in one’s craft at the detriment of personal self-care contributes to burnout. The same drive that was instrumental in becoming a physician is the same drive leading to burnout. Also, the culture of medicine typically glorifies long hours, with little sleep and staggering patient loads. Seriously, what would happen if the healers (the physicians) crash and burn. Who would take care of the physicians and the thousands of patients that depend on them? Hospital administrators and colleagues must work together to find early solutions for burnout in the workplace before it compromises patient care and the wellbeing of our valued physicians. As I have mentioned in other articles, doctors are human too, and we need to afford ourselves the same level of compassion that we give our patients.
Tomi Mitchell is a family physician.
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