Google “physician burnout epidemic,” and you will find quite a few articles and blog posts on the subject. By all accounts, physician burnout is getting worse.
Causes are many, including job dissatisfaction, loss of control, work-life imbalance, tuition debt, government and insurance regulations, electronic medical records, and more.
Solutions are few, and not many have been validated.
The emphasis has been on the plight of doctors, but what about patients? Doctor burnout has been associated with suboptimal patient care.
Neurologist John H. Noseworthy, President and CEO of the Mayo Clinic, has a suggestion—fire your doctor. In an interview on Chicago’s PBS outlet WTTW, he was asked what patients should do if they think their physicians may be burned out, cynical, or not empathetic.
He replied, “I think the first thing is to recognize it and change physicians. Candidly, it is too risky to be cared for by someone who is impaired. It is difficult to say that but it is true. You can say, ‘Doctor, you used to be a great doctor. You used to care about me. You seem different. I hope you are getting some help.’ But in the meantime, patients and their families have to look after themselves.”
In answer to a follow-up question, he said it might be helpful if patients told their doctors why they were being fired.
Dr. Noseworthy’s advice is problematic because the average patient would neither be able to diagnose burnout nor be willing to confront a doctor with suspicions of burnout.
Even more importantly, how easy would it be to change doctors? In late 2015, a survey by investigators from the Mayo Clinic found the following:
Of the 35,922 physicians who received an invitation to participate, 6880 (19.2%) completed surveys. When assessed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory, 54.4% (n=3680) of the physicians reported at least 1 symptom of burnout in 2014 compared with 45.5% (n=3310) in 2011 (P<.001). [Emphasis added] Satisfaction with work-life balance also declined in physicians between 2011 and 2014 (48.5% vs 40.9%; P<.001). Burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in US physicians worsened from 2011 to 2014. More than half of US physicians are now experiencing professional burnout.
Based on the Mayo Clinic’s own study, a patient who decides to change doctors has a better than 50-50 chance of ending up with another burned out doctor.
Is it worth taking that chance?
Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last six years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 2,500,000 page views, and he has over 15,500 followers on Twitter.