Physician burnout: An issue that affects us all

To have a healthy population, you need healthy physicians. Yet the number of physicians experiencing burnout is rising, and as shown by this U.S. study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, an exhausted physician is likely to commit a substantially higher number of errors. How can we fight this growing problem affecting physicians’ quality of life as well as the services they provide to patients? A good prescription first requires a good diagnosis.


Burnout among physicians on the rise

From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of physicians experiencing burnout in the United States rose from 10% to an alarming 55%. This data comes from a study of 35,000 physicians led by Dr. Tait Shanafelt, an expert on physician mental health. This phenomenon is unfortunately not limited to the United States. In France, 52% of physicians say they are concerned by burnout, while the results of a survey by the Canadian Physician Health Institute (CPHI) show that 46% of Canadian physicians are affected. While methodologies and the number of physicians surveyed may vary, everyone agrees on one point: physician mental health is an urgent issue that must be addressed as quickly as possible. To learn how to remedy this situation, it’s important to understand the specificity of the professional exhaustion experienced in the medical community.


Why are physicians more susceptible to burnout?

It’s no secret that physicians are under a lot of pressure. Every day they witness suffering, make heartbreaking ethical decisions and are responsible for situations that could change the life of a patient forever. There’s no point in creating false hope: this pressure is practically inevitable insofar as it’s part of the very nature of the profession. Hope lies instead in the way in which hospitals, departments or governments choose to manage and control this pressure. Maybe we can’t change the stress that is inherent in the practice of medicine, but we can certainly change the culture of the medical community and improve the work habits of physicians.


Hospital culture: a source of burnout

Before they even start medical school, future physicians know that they are preparing to enter a hyper-competitive world: in Canada, medical school admission rates range from 3% to 11%. In addition to being competitive, physicians are often perfectionists, which is not a bad thing when it comes to providing the best possible care. The problem is that a culture of competition and perfectionism encourages denial, which makes it difficult to set limits for oneself. Not being up to the task at hand is frowned upon in the medical community, as much by a physician himself as by their colleagues. The wheel keeps spinning and physicians are not encouraged to address the issues affecting them. And yet, specialists tell us that the first step in preventing and combating professional exhaustion is precisely to admit that our situation is problematic and to talk about it with others.


Solutions in place for preventing burnout

To prevent burnout, or to recover from it, you first have to recognize the symptoms, for example: exhaustion, irritability, cynicism, headaches, insomnia and, more generally, the feeling of “enduring” your workplace rather than working there. In fact, the work environment plays a major role in the development of burnout, which is why physicians are encouraged to communicate with department and hospital stakeholders. It’s not always easy for a physician to raise this kind of issue with their immediate colleagues, but they can reach out to external organizations like the Programme d’aide aux médecins du Québec or the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which offer counselling and advice from professionals in the field. Physicians who take this first step are on the right track, and they are growing in number. 


PetalMD’s humble contribution

The healthcare management applications offered by PetalMD obviously cannot offer psychological support, but they can help to improve the work environment of physicians and their colleagues. A scientific study published in 2007 in Obstetrics & Gynecology demonstrates that the most significant factor leading to professional exhaustion in physicians is a lack of control over their schedules and hours worked. PetalMD’s schedule management solution tackles this very problem by improving efficiency and quality of life for physicians and their collaborators, as shown by the participants in this case study.

The issue of the growing number of physicians experiencing burnout should be approached from several angles. In terms of communication, we encourage physicians to use the external services offered to them, which will respect their anonymity. In terms of technology, we invite physicians to learn about our solutions, which help improve quality of life at work by reducing the medico-administrative workload.