Physician Wellness

Physician burnout is a national epidemic, with multiple studies indicating that approximately half of all physicians experience symptoms of burnout, including exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of reduced effectiveness. A 2019 study by researchers at Stanford University confirms this trend, with 44% of physicians reporting at least one symptom of burnout, and only about 43% reporting satisfaction with their work-life integration. Studies also indicate that burnout is more common among physicians than U.S. workers in other fields. Symptoms of burnout among workers in other fields is about 28%.

Why are physicians so burned out? The 2019 Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression and Suicide Report asked respondents what leads to burnout in their lives. Fifty nine percent said too many administrative tasks, 34% said spending too much time at work and 32% said increased computerization of practice, such as the use of electronic health records (EHRs).

Physician wellness and professional satisfaction are not just issues that impact physicians themselves. Studies have also found that burnout can erode quality of care, patient safety, turnover rates and patient satisfaction. A 2018 Stanford study found that physicians with burnout had more than twice the odds of self-reported medical error.

“What we found in this study is that physician burnout levels appear to be equally, if not more, important than the work unit safety score to the risk of medical errors occurring,” said Tait Shanafelt, M.D., Chief Wellness Officer, Stanford Medicine and associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Today, most organizations invest substantial resources and have a system-level approach to improve safety on every work unit. Very few devote equal attention to address the system-level factors that drive burnout in the physicians and nurses working in that unit,” said Dr. Shanafelt. “We need a comprehensive and systems-based approach to address the epidemic of burnout among health care providers if we are truly going to create the high-quality health care system we aspire to.”

This is why the California Medical Association (CMA) has made physician wellness and the prevention of burnout a core priority. CMA has collaborated with Dr. Shanafelt and his colleague at the Stanford WellMD Center Mickey Trockel, M.D., Ph.D., to launch the most comprehensive effort in the country to increase physician wellness as a vehicle to improve the quality of care they provide patients.

“This project aims to promote wellness for all physicians, deliver specific interventions to those most at risk for burnout, and provide timely interventions to those already in distress,” said Dr. Trockel. “Along with broad focus on promoting well-being, this tiered approach also sets the ambitious goal of preventing physician suicide in California.”

In addition to their effect on patients, both medical errors and burnout can also have serious personal consequences for physicians. “We also know from our previous work that both burnout and medical errors independently double the risk of suicidal thoughts among physicians,” said Dr. Shanafelt. “This contributes to the higher risk of death by suicide among physicians relative to other professionals.”

Physicians also have the highest suicide rate of any profession, with the number of physician suicides –28-40 per 100,000—being more than twice that of the general population. The 2019 Medscape study confirms previous studies, finding that 14 percent of physicians have had thoughts of suicide.   

 “Given the strong links between physician distress and the care they provide patients, we believe improving physician wellness benefits not only physicians, but the patients and communities they serve,” said Dr. Shanafelt.

CMA is proud to launch this collaborative effort with the Stanford University School of Medicine. By advancing initiatives that enhance efficiency, professional satisfaction and the delivery of care, CMA is striving to help physicians navigate and succeed in a continually evolving health care environment.

For more information, email or call (800) 786-4262.

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