More than half of all U.S. physicians (51 percent) have experienced burnout, according to Medscape’s 2017 Physician Lifestyle Report. This is an increase of more than 25 percent in just four years; when Medscape started asking this question in 2013, the overall rate was closer to 40 percent.
Burnout — defined as a loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment — affects physicians across a broad range of specialties.
Physicians reporting the highest levels of burnout
This year, the highest rates of burnout were reported by:
- Emergency medicine physicians (59 percent)
- OB/GYN (56 percent)
- Family physicians (55 percent)
- Internists (55 percent)
- Infectious disease physicians (55 percent)
Lowest rates of physician burnout
The lowest rates of burnout were reported by:
- Psychiatry and mental health physicians (42 percent)
- Allergy and immunology physicians (43 percent)
- Ophthalmologists (43 percent
- Pathologists (43 percent)
Interestingly, emergency and primary care physicians — specialties that are regularly at the top in reporting burnout — did not have the highest rates of burnout severity. When respondents were asked to rate the severity of their burnout, on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 equals “It does not interfere with my life” and 7 equals “It is so severe I am thinking of leaving medicine altogether,” urologists (4.6) and otolaryngologists and oncologists (both 4.5) topped the list. But infectious disease specialists, who were within the top five for experiencing burnout, had the lowest severity rating (3.9).
Causes of physician burnout
The reasons for burnout are varied, but according to the Medscape report, the most cited cause is “having too many bureaucratic tasks,” followed by “spending too many hours at work.” This is the third consecutive year these factors have topped the list. “Feeling like just a cog in a wheel” also rated high as a cause of burnout this year.
All of these reasons may be interrelated. Needing to dedicate large chunks of time to bureaucracy can, of course, lead to spending too many hours at work. Unfortunately, this is typically time spent doing what many doctors enjoy least. The result is insufficient time to spend on patient care, which ultimately leads to burnout.
Though burnout affects both genders, more female physicians (55 percent) reported feeling burnt out than their male counterparts (45 percent). So it makes sense that men reported being happy at work (45 percent) more often than women (39 percent). Outside of work, however, happiness levels were more in sync between male and female physicians (69 percent and 67 percent, respectively).
Who are the happiest physicians?
When happiness levels were polled across specialties, the highest percentage of physicians who said they are either very happy or extremely happy at work were:
- Dermatologists (43 percent)
- Ophthalmologists (42 percent)
These two specialties were also the top two happiest at work last year, and in 2014.
Outside of work, urologists are the happiest, though ophthalmologists and dermatologists also placed high, tying for second place at 74 percent.
On the bottom were rheumatologists and nephrologists. These two groups reported being the least happy both at work (both 24 percent) and outside of work (61 percent and 62 percent, respectively).
When happiness levels outside of work were ranked by ethnicity, the happiest were those who identified themselves as Japanese (69 percent), Filipino (65 percent), or Vietnamese (64 percent). At the bottom of the list were those who described themselves as other Asian (50 percent) or Chinese or black/African American (both 55 percent).
Back on the job, the happiest were those who identified themselves as Asian Indian (37 percent) or Hispanic/Latino (36 percent), but the percentage range for nearly all groups from top to bottom was only 13 percent and all of the percentages were discouragingly low.
The solution to burnout
Physicians in all specialties are looking for ways to avoid burnout. In a recent PhysiciansPractice post, pediatrician Rebecca Fox gave several suggestions, including:
- Take a break and recharge yourself
- Stay engaged by finding a new direction with your specialty
- Consider a concierge practice model
- Use your clinical skills for alternative career paths
We work with many physicians who have turned to locum tenens to deal with burnout. Locum physicians don’t have to deal with hospital bureaucracy or spend too many hours at work, which have been the leading causes of burnout at work for two years in a row.
Locum tenens providers are also free to focus on patient care. They show up for their shift, dedicate their attention to their patients, and leave when their shift is done, often to spend their time off exploring a new part of the country.
If you are among the majority of physicians plagued by burnout, the locum tenens lifestyle may be the perfect solution.