Should We Worry about Physician Burnout?

How Telephone Triage Call Centers Can Help

By Shannon Bays-Crockett

When studying worrisome symptoms among physicians and mental health workers in the 1970s, Herbert Freudenberger, a German-American psychology, coined the term burnout. HHS described professional burnout in 2017 as an occupational hazard that could lead to high-quality healthcare professions leaving the practice of medicine. By 2017 physicians reporting frequent or constant feelings of burnout totaled 51 percent—up from 40 percent in 2013.

The Center for treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders reports that physician burnout is growing in the United States. One in three physicians experiences physician burnout at any point in time. Compared to other professions, physicians are fifteen times more likely to experience burnout. About 45 percent of physicians report that they would quit the profession if it weren’t for the money. Approximately 400 physicians commit suicide each year. Those numbers emphasize the need to quickly address the burnout issue.

Physician burnout symptoms seem to mirror indications of other stress disorders, but there are also distinct differences. Dr. Dike Drummond, author of the blog “The Happy MD,” talks about physician burnout in his article “Physician Burnout and the Four Phases of Compassion Fatigue” (blog post #297) when he says, “Losing the ability to feel empathy, sympathy, and compassion for your patients is a constant risk for all of us.” 

Physician burnout symptoms might include:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion that leaves physicians worn out and unable to recover during downtime
  • The development of a cynical and negative attitude regarding work and patients
  • A reduced sense of purpose along with a feeling that what they’re doing has little to no meaning or value

Ashley Altus, a writer for The DO for the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), reported on Dr. Octavia Cannon’s talk to the January 25, 2018, AOA LEAD (Leadership, Education, Advocacy & Development) Conference in Austin, Texas. Dr. Cannon challenged physicians to teach students and residents about the importance of life outside of medicine. “Encourage them to take time for themselves,” Dr. Cannon said. 

Dr. Cannon continued to discuss how stress for young physicians is at its peak during training in medical school and residency, citing Medscape’s 2018 National Physician Burnout and Depression Report in which data suggested that 42 percent of physicians reported symptoms of burnout. Ms. Altus reported on five key takeaways.

1. The highest rates of burnout occurred in critical care medicine, neurology, family medicine, OB-GYN, and internal medicine. The lowest burnout rates appeared in the specialties of plastic surgery, dermatology, pathology, ophthalmology, and orthopedics.

2. More than 50 percent of physicians feeling burned out noted that a contributing factor was that they had too many bureaucratic tasks, such as charting and paperwork.

3. Patient care declines when physicians suffer from depression. Approximately one-third of physicians reported that they are easily exasperated, and 32 percent reported that they were less engaged with patients because of depression.

4. About 50 percent of physicians reported that they cope with burnout through exercise, while about 46 percent talked with family members and close friends, and about 42 percent coped by getting more sleep.

5. Physicians are split on possible solutions to burnout. About 35 percent favored reduced financial stress through increased compensation. About 31 percent favored a more manageable work schedule and on-call hours. And about 27 percent felt that decreased government regulation would be the most popular suggestion.

Senior news writer for the American Medical Association Sara Berg suggests that medical students might consider the inherent or potential stressors of a specialty as part of their decisions about the specialty they want to practice. In a recent survey about burnout and depression, more than 15,000 physicians from twenty-nine specialties provided responses that indicated 42 percent of respondents were burned out, which was down from 51 percent the prior year. 

The rates of burnout among medical specialties are:

  • Critical care: 48 percent
  • Neurology: 48 percent
  • Family medicine: 47 percent
  • Obstetrics and gynecology: 46 percent
  • Internal medicine: 46 percent
  • Emergency medicine: 45 percent

Addressing Physician Burnout 

Private practice physicians have similar issues. Imagine the pediatrician at a daughter’s dance recital or a son’s football game, and the phone rings. The caller is the worried parent of a child who is spiking a fever. The physician is torn away from the family activity to advise the child’s parent. The doctor becomes frustrated by missing his own child’s big moment in the spotlight and can’t get that back. Somebody loses out, and the choice between duty, frustration, and guilt is not an easy decision. 

Physicians list the top stressors to be bureaucratic tasks, heavy workloads, computerization, and working around the clock.

In their article, Adams and Loftus discuss steps that Emory University’s GME program, the seventh-largest GME program in the country, has taken to prepare future physicians. Highlights of the Emory program are.

Pay Attention: Stress often takes a silent toll. Physician wellness improvement programs can be implemented at worksites.

Fill the Tank: Stress is cumulative and must be managed early and continually. Ensure that staff takes time for meal breaks, makes priorities of time with family and vacations, exercise, eats properly, and sleeps enough hours to restore the body and mind. 

Boost Empathy: Ensure that psychological and/or spiritual support is available for physician and nursing staff when disasters, both big and small, happen. Adams and Loftus offered this from George Grant, a psychologist and theologian: “A major cause of physician stress and burnout is ‘empathic’ imbalance. Most clinicians, to devote the fullest attention to patient and program, are taught to suppress their own concerns and feelings.”

Champion Wellness: Just as physicians tell patients to eat better, exercise, quit smoking, and find healthy ways to relax, the message needs to be passed along to other physicians and medical colleagues.

Strengthen Compassion: Research has proven that compassion is not an inborn trait. It can be taught and strengthened through instruction.

Restore Joy: The Blue Ridge Academic Health Group report, an annual publication, stated in one of its recent issues: “We pay a staggering cost in lost productivity, risks to mental and physical health, eroding quality and safety, diminished patient satisfaction, staff turnover, and lost dollars. 

“At the extreme [is the] personal toll of depression and suicide…. When joy is lacking and burnout is present, the stakes are high.”

Healthcare Call Centers

One popular solution—after-hours telephone triage—works well to achieve all the above goals as well as serve the needs of anxious patients. Nurse triage call centers help physicians achieve work/life balance by reducing or eliminating after-hours and on-call requirements by offering patients telephone access to advice that is based on guidelines established according to preferences of each provider’s practice. All patient calls are triaged using evidence-based guidelines and are directed to the appropriate level of care. All call records are forwarded directly to the patient’s care provider so they are available the next business day.

By partnering with accredited health call centers for after-hours telephone triage, providers can enjoy their professional as well as their private lives. Other benefits of afterhours nurse triage are reflected in improved physician recruitment and retention, as well as a more satisfying patient/physician encounter when the physician is rested and refreshed. 

Shannon Bays-Crockett is a strategic communications specialist with AccessNurse.