Almost half of doctors experience at least one symptom of burnout, study finds

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(CBS News) Are America's doctors sick of their jobs? A new survey shows that almost half of physicians are experiencing at least one symptom of burnout.

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"Our finding is concerning given the extensive literature linking burnout to medical errors and lower quality of care," study author Dr. Tait Shanafelt a hematologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. said to TIME. "Most previous studies of physicians from individual specialties have suggested a burnout rate of 30 percent to 40 percent. Thus, the prevalence of burnout among physicians appears to be higher than in the past."

Using a database from the American Medical Association, researchers from the Mayo Clinic asked 7,288 doctors to fill out a questionnaire called a Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which is used to measure burnout. The survey looked at the three domains that define what psychologists consider burnout: "emotional exhaustion" or losing enthusiasm for their work; feelings of cynicism or "depersonalization"; and a low sense of personal accomplishment. Research suggests burnout may increase risk for medical errors, lead to early retirement, or lead to problems in physicians like alcohol abuse and broken relationships.

According to the survey, which was published online on Aug. 20 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, about 45.8 percent of doctors said they experienced at least one symptom of burnout. Most of them (37.9 percent) had gone through emotional exhaustion, followed by high depersonalization (29.4 percent) and a low sense of personal accomplishment (12.4 percent).

The doctors were also asked to complete a smaller version of the MBI which included questions regarding how long they worked each week, if they had any depressive symptoms or suicidal thoughts and how happy they were with their work life balance. Their answers were compared to a general public sampling of 3,442 working adults with various levels of education. Using the shorter survey, it was determined that 35.2 percent of physicians when accounting for age and demographics were burned out compared to 27.8 percent of the population. About 40 percent of doctors were unhappy with their work-life balance compared to 23.2 percent of workers among the rest of the population.

Physicians who worked in emergency medicine, general internal medicine, neurology and family medicine were the most likely to be experiencing burnout. Those who had been trained to deal with end-of-life scenarios, including most specialists, were less likely to experience the symptoms. Study co-author Dr. Colin West, an internal medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic, hypothesized to U.S. News that it may be because these doctors feel that helping patients and their families deal with death is an honor.

"We don't have a great understanding of what drives burnout and distress," West told U.S. News. "But it seems to have much to do with having control or autonomy over what you do. On the front lines, whoever comes in the door is unpredictable and you have to respond to a lot of different situations."

An earlier report by physician Dr. Mark Linzer, director of the Hennepin Healthcare System in Minneapolis, also suggested that 26.5 percent of doctors are complaining of burnout. He added to USA Today that control issues were the biggest factor that created stress for physicians. The issue is important now more than ever, Linzer explained, because doctors are going to be seeing more patients due to changes in the health care system.

"The Affordable Care Act is going to put more pressure on the front lines," he said. "This new study could be an important wake-up call the country needs to hear to build health care teams to meet the need."

West suggested better stress management training for doctors and that more emphasis be put on allowing for a positive work-life balance.

"Anything that makes a doctor unable to connect with patients is important for the profession," he says. "We can't just tell doctors these problems are out there and cope with them better. We need to better understand why this is happening."

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