The occurrence, prevention, and consequences of burnout among healthcare professionals have been matters of concern and study since the 1960s. The concept of burnout encompasses emotional and psychological job-related stress in any health practice environment with resulting negative impacts on job satisfaction, job performance, and patient outcomes. Both physicians and nurses experience burnout which may be manifested with higher rates of depression, fatigue, and anxiety. A higher rate of substance abuse, increased incidents of sleep disturbances, damaged relationships and even increased rates of suicide have been reported. Physician burnout can also appear as a loss of interest in and enthusiasm for work as well as increased frustration and emotional exhaustion. Decreased empathy for patients as well as diminution in a sense of personal worth and professional accomplishment may be present. There may also be an onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The prolonged pandemic associated with COVID-19 was expected to intensify physician burnout. A recent survey published in March 2022 by BMC Health Services Research adds supportive data and information for further evaluation. This study was conducted in June 2020 and again in December and January 2021. These were the first two waves that occurred before the Delta and Omicron virus variants had spread. The authors focused on five groups of medical practitioners: (1) primary care physicians, (2) hospitalists, (3) critical care and pulmonary intensivists, (4) emergency medicine physicians, and (5) infectious disease physicians. In the first wave, emergency medicine physicians had the highest burnout score but in contrast they had the lowest scores in the second wave. The article attributes this as possibly due to institutional or personal adaptation to the pandemic. For all other specialties, the burnout scores increased with the highest scores coming from the hospitalists. Hospitalists are the principal segment of physicians who dealt with increasing caseloads of COVID-19 patients who were often hospitalized for prolonged periods of time.
Many resources have become available for dealing with the prevention and management of physician burnout. For example, the American Medical Association has a STEPS Forward program that can be utilized for ways to reduce burnout. In March 2022, President Biden signed into law the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. 42 U.S.C. § 294n. This law authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants for programs to promote mental health and resiliency among health care providers. It was passed with a recognition of COVID-19 having worsened the high levels of stress and burnout experienced by healthcare providers.
The increases in physician burnout prompt concerns for increased legal risks. Extensive literature has explored this topic. However, a recent study published in April 2022 by Health Affairs challenges that proposition. The researchers reviewed Medicare data for over 1,000 patients with a hypothesis that physicians reporting more frequent episodes of burnout or having developed increased callousness to patients would experience higher Medicare costs or more frequent bad outcomes. In the context of this study, the researchers found that physicians who had self-reported experiencing several episodes of burnout had lower rates of undesirable outcomes. While not suggesting that burnout was beneficial or that attempts to reduce burnout should not be pursued, they noted that physicians who self-reported burnout were more conscientious and gave more effort to providing good care to their patients.
This study, while having a limited sample size, provides support for programs for physician empowerment, wellness, and resilience. Participation in such programs can lead to insight and improved health.