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New research suggests a dramatic jump in physician burnout that is likely to impact delivery of quality healthcare throughout the US.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the healthcare system was staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, burnout is common among healthcare providers in the US and the years of the pandemic continue take a toll.

In a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers used standardized electronic survey tools to assess the work-life integration, burnout, depression, and fulfillment of 43,299 physicians between early December 2021 and late January 2022. Of those, 2440 completed the survey. The study found the rate of physician burnout has increased dramatically.  Note the study authors, “Given the association of physician burnout with quality of care, turnover, and reductions in work effort, these findings have profound implications for the US health care system.”  While emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were noted throughout almost all practice areas, subspecialties that suffered higher impact during the study period include family medicine, emergency medicine, and general pediatrics.  As well, the long-term rise of burnout and work-life conflict for women physicians was again supported by this study.

The danger of disengaged healthcare providers

The Mayo clinic results discuss emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, occupational distress, and other factors that lead to physician burnout.  The survey supports a finding that one in five physicians plan to leave their practice in the next two years.  Added to that are a large group of healthcare workers, such as nurses, who have already left the industry or plan to in the next few years.

Loss of physicians and other healthcare staff will create staffing shortfalls through the field of medicine.  In addition to the loss of providers, physicians suffering from emotional exhaustion or burnout may be at higher risk of placing a patient in danger. An article from the Patient Safety Network (PSNet), suggests providers suffering from burnout may display “diminished vigilance, cognitive function, and increased safety lapses,” putting them at higher risk of medical error

What is being done?  Dr. Jack Resneck, President of the American Medical Association (AMA), said in a statement, “While the worst days of COVID-19 pandemic are hopefully behind us, there is an urgent need to attend to physicians who put everything into our nation’s response to COVID-19, too often at the expense of their own well-being.” The AMA has proposed a recovery plan that addresses aspects of burnout including supporting telehealth, reforming Medicare payment, and other criteria.

The most intense years of the COVID-19 pandemic are hopefully behind us.  The impact of the pandemic on the medical system may not be fully understood for years.

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