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Physician Burnout: An Ongoing Crisis Increasing the Risk of Medical Malpractice Claims

Author: Emily Straub

February 3, 2020 10:00am

Physician burnout has reached epidemic levels with no sign of decline in sight. More than 50% of physicians throughout the country experience burnout symptoms.[1] This percentage is almost two times higher than that in other professions.[2] Currently, the rate of physician burnout is anticipated to continue to increase over time.[3]

The term “burnout” is characteristically understood to be a “combination of exhaustion, cynicism, and perceived inefficacy resulting from long-term job stress.”[4] Burnout results from “excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources” on the job.[5]  The negative effects of physician burnout not only impact physician well-being; they also impact patient care.[6] Various studies demonstrate a correlation between physician burnout and factors such as medical errors, malpractice lawsuits, patient safety, decreased patient satisfaction, increased job turnover, decreased work efficiency, and even physician shortages.[7] [8] [9] [10] The chief conclusion of such studies suggests “physician burnout might jeopardize patient care.”[11]

Just last year, over 15,000 physicians across approximately 30 subspecialties in the United States participated in a study by Medscape, responding to survey questions bearing on physician burnout.[12] The results of this survey indicate the largest contributors to physician burnout are: (1) too many bureaucratic tasks (e.g., charting, paperwork); (2) spending too many hours at work; (3) lack of respect from administrators, employers, colleagues, or staff; and (4) increasing computerization of the medical practice (e.g., electronic health records).[13]

So, how is the health care industry supposed to combat physician burnout? Suggestion No. 1: involve leadership. More specifically, “healthcare administrators must acknowledge burnout as a systemic problem and promote a culture of self-care among their employees, starting from the top down.”[14] Suggestions No. 2: avoid productivity-based compensation.[15] This type of financial incentive commonly results in increased working hours and/or decreased physician-patient time.[16] Suggestion No. 3: encourage work-life balance.[17] Examples of this include permitting fewer work hours in exchange for reduced compensation and increasing flexibility of work scheduling.[18] Suggestions No. 4: encourage peer support. In other words, promote camaraderie through things such as bi-monthly group discussions or furnishing coffee and snacks at a centralized location. [19] [20] [21] Suggestions No. 5: furnish resources for mental health and self-care.[22] This includes things such as providing coverage during work hours to allow physicians to obtain mental health treatment, providing mindfulness and/or exercise programs at the workplace, and assisting with gym memberships. [23] Authorities stress “[i]nvestments in organizational strategies to jointly monitor and improve physician wellness and patient care outcomes are needed.”[24]

Takeaway

Research indicates the potential for medical malpractice claims will continue to rise so long as physician burnout is not combatted on a systemic level.  Consider offering an insurance discount incentive to physician groups who invest in programs and other solutions for their employees that are designed to reduce stress and burnout.

 

[1] Shanafelt T.D., et al., Burnout and Satisfaction with Work-Life Balance Among US Physicians Relative to the General US Population. Arch Intern Med., 2012

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Reith T.P., Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review, Cureus, December 4, 2018

[5] Freudenberger H.J., Staff Burn-Out, J. Soc. Issues, 1974

[6] Reith T.P., Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review, Cureus, December 4, 2018

[7] Shanafelt TD, Balch CM, Bechamps G, et al., Burnout and Medical Errors Among American Surgeons, Ann Surg., 2010

[8] Balch C.M., Oreskovich M.R., Dyrbye L.N., Colaiano J.M., Satele D.V., Sloan J.A., Shanafelt T.D., Personal  Consequences of Malpractice Lawsuits on American Surgeons, J Am Coll Surg., 2011

[9] Halbesleben J.R., Rathert C., Linking Physician Burnout and Patient Outcomes: Exploring the Dyadic Relationship Between Physicians and Patients, Health Care Manage Rev., 2008

[10] Maria Panagioti, PhD, et al., Association Between Physician Burnout and Patient Safety, Professionalism, and Patient Satisfaction: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Original Investigation, 2018

[11] Maria Panagioti, PhD, et al., Association Between Physician Burnout and Patient Safety, Professionalism, and Patient Satisfaction: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Original Investigation, 2018

[12] Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2020: The Generational Divide, Medscape, 2020

[13] Id.

[14] Reith, T.P., Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review, Cureus, December 4, 2018

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Lucette Lagnado, Hospitals Address Widespread Doctor Burnout, Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2018

[21] West C.P., et al.: Intervention to Promote Physician Well-Being, Job Satisfaction, and Professionalism: A Randomized Clinical Trial, JAMA Intern Med., 2014

[22] Reith, T.P., Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review, Cureus, December 4, 2018

[23] Id.

[24] Maria Panagioti, PhD, et al., Association Between Physician Burnout and Patient Safety, Professionalism, and Patient Satisfaction: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Original Investigation, 2018

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