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Data Shows Worsening Burnout Rates Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

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Key Insights

  • New data from Medscape shows the rate at which physicians in various medical specialties are suffering from burnout since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
  • According to the study, the specialties of critical care, infectious disease, family medicine, pediatrics, and OB-GYN were in the top ten, reporting burnout rates as high as 44 percent and greater.
  • Among medical professionals, 21 percent reported their burnout began with COVID-19. Female physicians reported the highest rates of burnout.

Medscape Study

The rate of physician burnout is worsening.

Following up on their 2016 study, Medscape’s National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021 surveyed “more than 12,000 physicians in 29 specialties” between August 30 and November 5, 2020. Medscape reported that in 2020, “the five specialties ranked highest on burnout were urology, neurology, endocrinology, and family medicine.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Medscape reports that the “lineup is different this year; the specialities ranked highest include critical care (44 percent in 2020, 51 percent in 2021), rheumatology (46 percent in 2020, 50 percent in 2021), and infectious disease (45 percent in 2020, 49 percent in 2021).”

Physicians indicated that their main causes of burnout included “the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), difficult conditions, long hours, grief over losing patients, and watching patients’ families suffer.” When considering factors outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, Medscape’s study found that the causes of burnout remained relatively the same as in previous years: “too many bureaucratic tasks; too many hours at work, increasing computerization of practice; and insufficient compensation.”

Factors affecting rates of burnout include far more than medical speciality. Female physicians have historically reported higher rates of burnout, and according to Medscape, the 2021 “disparity was greater than usual,” with 51 percent of female physicians experiencing burnout compared to 36 percent of male. Physicians reported that satisfaction with their careers dropped from 69 percent pre-COVID to 49 percent, citing factors such as “stresses, risks, social distancing, and future uncertainty” as reasons for their “declining happiness.”

While burnout affects physicians of all ages, Millennial physicians, between the ages of 25 and 39 years old, reported disproportionately high rates of burnout compared to Generation X (ages 40-54) and Baby Boomer physicians (ages 55-73). Millennials were more likely to report that “burnout had a negative effect on their personal relationships.”

Treating Symptoms of Burnout

Physicians are, as the saying goes, “caught between a rock and a hard place,” when it comes to the pandemic. Safety comes at the expense of human interaction, and isolation, compounded with fear and worry, exacerbate burnout. Nevertheless, some physicians have found strategies to reduce burnout that they can continue using throughout the pandemic.

According to the Medscape survey, physicians can reduce the incidence of burnout by engaging in “exercise, talking to close family and friends,” and ensuring they are getting enough sleep.

At work, some physicians have been able to reduce their burnout by delegating tasks, such as subscribing to a virtual scribe service, or partnering with a managed services organization (MSO) to alleviate their IT, coding and documentation, payer contracting, and other non-clinical obligations. They should also allow themselves to say no and prioritize their mental health for the benefit of their patients.

Check out inforMD to learn more about strategies to help reduce physician burnout!

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