If you experience symptoms of a mental health condition, you’re not alone – by any means. More than one in five adults in the United States live with a mental illness.
For many, workplace stress often exacerbates this issue. More than three-quarters of U.S. workers report at least one symptom of a mental health condition, costing the country’s economy roughly $47.6 billion in lost productivity.
Unsurprisingly, physicians are at an increased risk for mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety. These issues are fueled by burnout, which when referring to doctors is defined by the American Medical Association as a long‑term stress reaction characterized by depersonalization.
According to a recent report, approximately half of physicians admit to being burned out. So do many nurses and almost 75 percent of healthcare executives. Primary care doctors are particularly susceptible to burnout.
Physician burnout was already prevalent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but additional stressors, from fear of contracting the contagious virus to an excessive workload, have only heightened it. A Yale study found that nearly 25 percent of healthcare workers are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and roughly half are exhibiting signs of alcohol use disorder.
The most serious mental health issue among physicians is suicide. An estimated 300 doctors annually die by suicide, with a rate as much as 40 percent higher than the general population. More than half of all doctors know a physician who has considered, attempted, or died by suicide in his or her career.
Recruitment and Replacement
The consequences of physician burnout have been well-documented. It’s been directly linked to an array of problems, including decreased patient satisfaction and care quality, physician alcohol and drug abuse and addiction and high medical error rates, malpractice risk, and physician and staff turnover.
Just last year, approximately 40 percent of medical groups reported that a physician had retired early or left the organization due to burnout. A high physician turnout rate might not seem so problematic – simply hire a new doctor or two, and you’re back in business.
It’s not that easy, though. Each time a physician in a practice quits or retires, his or her employer incurs the costs of recruiting and training a replacement. Replacing a physician often costs a medical group two to three times the annual salary of the physician who left.
Research shows that turnover leads to an additional $979 million in annual excess healthcare spending across the U.S. population. Nearly one-third of those costs — roughly $260 million — are attributable to physician burnout.
Along with turnover costs, physician burnout affects the healthcare industry through reduced clinical hours. Combined with physician turnover, those decreased clinical hours lead to an estimated $4.6 billion annually. That’s a cost of $7,600 per employed physician each year.
Medical Errors and Other Indirect Expenses
As with mental health issues in employees who work outside the healthcare industry, the ramifications of physician burnout reverberate beyond the economy to negatively affect clinical and organizational outcomes. Physicians who are burned out are more likely to commit medical errors, spur dissatisfaction and turnover among staff members and clinician colleagues, and increase malpractice risk.
Physician burnout also can have a big impact on patient experience. Because doctors experiencing burnout are more likely to have impaired attention, memory, and executive function, all of which decrease their recall and attention to detail, they’re twice as likely to provide suboptimal care. A negative patient experience has the potential to damage a practice’s reputation, leading patients to seek care from other medical groups.
Other consequences of physician burnout include:
- Reduced job satisfaction and career longevity
- Feelings of isolation
- Increased depersonalization (negative, cynical, and hostile attitudes and detached feelings toward patients)
- Declines in personal relationships
- Unnecessary referrals to specialist care
Barriers to Treatment
If burnout is so overwhelming for physicians, why don’t more seek professional help? One of the biggest reasons is one experienced by the general population: stigma. Many individuals hesitate to seek care for their mental health issues because they’re afraid of what others in their professional and personal circles will think about them.
Nearly half of physicians who’ve reported burnout haven’t sought professional help because they believe depression and the other effects say something negative about them. Others are reluctant to seek mental health treatment because they fear doing so will impact their ability to procure their medical licensure or professional liability insurance or damage their career prospects. Other reasons doctors experiencing burnout don’t seek treatment are simple — work hours that preclude attending appointments during regular office hours, a lack of time in an already busy, and a sometimes unpredictable schedule or concerns about confidentiality.
How Digital Health Helps
Although certainly not the only answer for reducing burnout among physicians, the use of digital health tools — at least those designed with doctors in mind — aids in lightening their hefty administrative burden. How? By automating numerous administrative tasks for which doctors are responsible.
These resources aren’t designed to replace staff but instead enhance their ability to work efficiently and reduce duplicative processes and procedures. They’re meant to proactively improve the quality of patient care physicians give their patients.
Telehealth, for example, not only enables physicians to care for patients remotely. It also offers doctors experiencing burnout a confidential and convenient resource for seeking mental health treatment.
Other digital technologies, such as patient self-scheduling, digital check-in, online payments, and automated appointment reminder systems have achieved the most positive results in recent years for providers because they streamline practice workflow. At Epion Health, our HIPAA-compliant Digital Check-in solution enables patients to conveniently complete registration steps before their appointment, leaving more time for your staff to focus on other mission-critical tasks. For medical groups – of all sizes – it gives providers the information they need to improve the quality of time spent in the exam room. Along with Kyruus’ ProviderMatch search and scheduling solutions, it creates a seamless, end-to-end patient access and engagement experience, meaning less administrative work for medical groups.
Check out our complete guide to physician burnout for information on its causes and symptoms and what solutions are available for both doctors and nurses.