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Increasing Physician “Burnout” Is A Danger to Patients and Doctors.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2016 by Tom Degan

Most people have at some point felt “burned out” out work. In the United States employers have been trying to do more with less over the last decade, and as a result employee burnout has increased. When employees are burned out, their performance at work suffers.

According to research, people with chronic burnout have specific cognitive impairments affecting memory. For example, an article in Biological Psychology found “Significant reductions in nonverbal memory and auditory and visual attention” in a group of patients with burnout. This research can be found here:

Impaired cognitive performance in patients with chronic burnout syndrome

This research is significant because, according to a paper recently published by the Mayo Clinic, the rate of doctor “burnout” is increasing. At present more than half of all doctors in the United States are feeling “burned out” at work. The Mayo Clinic’s research found that in 2011, 45.5% of doctors felt burned out, but by 2014 that number rose to 54.4%. A story on the Mayo Clinic’s study can be found here:

Physician Burnout Climbs 10% in 3 Years, Hits 55%

The rate of physician burnout corresponds with significant changes in the practice of medicine. As the healthcare industry has consolidated, physicians are now more often than not employees of huge healthcare providers. The days of doctors working for themselves in small clinics or as solo practitioners appear to be as outmoded as cassette tapes.

In addition, as both the healthcare industry and the health insurance industry have grown, doctors’ autonomy in making decisions for their patients has diminished. Physicians have endured a barrage of government regulations that require them to use new technology like electronic medical records. In addition, doctors are now saddled with an increasing bureaucratic burden in order to just engage in the practice medicine. While it does not appear any research confirms that changes in the healthcare industry are effecting the rate of doctor “burnout,” these changes certainly coincide with an increase in doctor “burnout.”

Regardless of the cause, this is bad news for patients. Doctors suffering from burnout are not at the top of their game. We know that “burned out” employees are cognitively impaired. Thus, “burned out” doctors are more likely to commit medical errors, such as in diagnosing patients, prescribing medications, interpreting radiology studies, and in surgery. In addition, “burned out” doctors are likely unable to empathize with patients and their families, and ultimately these doctors may leave the practice of medicine.

Physicians are the backbone of the healthcare industry. Indeed, without doctors the healthcare industry cannot function. Physicians are highly trained and it takes a very long time for them to earn the ability to practice medicine. They are an important resource. If consolidation of the healthcare industry is the future, then the emerging newly consolidated healthcare industry needs to begin spending significant resources in order to find out how to make physicians happier at work. If not, the health of patients, and their doctors, will suffer.

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