Physician Burnout: Understanding the Cause

Physician stress and burnout are becoming the topics of discussion in many spheres of influence, as it affects more care providers now than ever before. These conditions are significant dangers to the health and well-being of physicians and can cause serious emotional damage, often leading to additional issues like mental health disorders and addictions. Burnout affects not only physicians, but their family members, friends and even patients. Once informed about the severity of the issue, most can agree this is a problem in need of a remedy, but to fight physician burnout, we must first understand the root of the issue. What are its specific causes? Why does it affect so many individuals in the U.S.?

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Stress vs. Burnout

The phenomenon of physician burnout is, as mentioned in Part I of this series, more than just stress. It is the result of prolonged, unaddressed issues resulting in a systematic problem. It’s an emotional injury to the soul, with wide-reaching effects and a much longer recovery time than stress. Though stress is certainly the prominent contributing factor, it can often be mended relatively quickly with rest, exercise and proper nutrition, and life coaching. Burnout is much more devastating.

There are four primary triggers of stress and burnout among physicians: the complexities of business, regulatory compliance requirements, increasing technological requirements, and finances. The complicated structures and management of private practices, physician groups, hospitals and health systems can often be stressful, as well as the often frantic attempts to meet detailed compliance requirements for programs like Medicare and Medicaid, PPO/HMO, patient medical records and quality measures reporting. As the 21st century marches onward, keeping up with technological advancements like implementing electronic medical records and new medical technologies can be daunting, tedious and expensive, which also leads to financial struggles. Financial issues can be suffocating in private practices, and decreasing hospital pay and reimbursements along with increasing insurance costs cause strain as well.

The above factors can cause burnout or stress, but there are a few particular elements that push stress over into the dangerous burnout zone. First, the culture of medicine is such that doctors are expected to be invincible. They must remain calm in the face of stressful diagnoses, undertake whatever the job throws at them without complaint, and utilize their years of training to the fullest. They are often expected to be “super-human,” never in need of a break. “Buckle down and try harder,” is often the general attitude in the fast-paced medical world, rather than “take a breather.”

A Lack of Training

Physicians of course receive extensive training to prepare them with the skills to determine the right treatment, to diagnose an illness or injury, to make difficult decisions at a moment’s notice, among all the knowledge necessary to understand the human body, and that’s why people look to doctors to take care of them. But despite the years of education, physicians often have little preparation regarding the life skills, leadership skills, business and finance skills and interpersonal skills they need in order to maintain a healthy life balance.

The world’s pace is getting faster as the years go by, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that burnout is a serious issue in need of a solution. Unfortunately, it has not always been a part of the cultural conversation, and as a result, organizations and physicians themselves often end up looking at therapeutic options after they reach the point of burnout, rather than putting safety net practices in place to prevent it.

Finally, organizations and physicians tend to focus exclusively on the physician and do not look at external factors affecting his or her level of stress, including family, finances, colleagues and life circumstances. A more holistic approach to assessing physician well-being is crucial to preventing burnout and minimizing stress.

Now that the causes have been identified, in the next installment, we will look at how specifically to break the cycle of physician burnout.

For more information about how FaithSearch Partners can help your organization address Physician Burnout, please contact Dr. Jeff Jernigan at jjernigan@faithsearchpartners.com.