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Physician burnout by specialty 2024: Navigating stress in the healthcare industry

Read about the top causes of physician burnout and why independent practitioners have an advantage over health-system providers.

Doctor looks through window pondering solutions to physician burnout

At a Glance

  • Physician burnout rates have been rising steadily since 2018, with over half now reporting feelings of burnout; leading culprits include excessive bureaucratic tasks, lack of respect from coworkers, and overwork.
  • Independent practices offer more autonomy and control over work-life balance, resulting in lower burnout rates compared to providers in larger healthcare organizations.
  • Cultivating strong internal relationships and opportunities to innovate also help independent providers combat burnout through heightened job satisfaction.

Physician burnout rates are escalating, marking a concerning trend in the healthcare industry. This phenomenon, characterized by extreme emotional exhaustion and a sense of detachment from one's work, is becoming increasingly prevalent across various medical specialties.

A 2018 report by Medscape on National Physician Burnout & Depression revealed a troubling increase in burnout, despite growing awareness of its detrimental effects on both healthcare providers and patients. By 2022, burnout rates surged to 53%, marking a 6% rise from the previous year and a significant 26% increase from 2018. Alongside burnout, the incidence of depression among physicians has also risen, with 23% reporting depressive symptoms in 2022, up from 15% in 2018.

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Insights into physician burnout rates by specialty

The impact of burnout varies across the medical field, with some specialties facing more severe challenges than others. Emergency medicine physicians experience the highest burnout rate at 65%, closely followed by internal medicine and pediatrics at 60% and 59%, respectively. This represents a significant increase, especially in emergency medicine, which saw a 20% jump from 2018 figures.

Emergency medicine physicians experience the highest burnout rate at 65%. ”

Female physicians report a higher incidence of burnout compared to their male counterparts, with 63% feeling the strain versus 46% of male physicians. This disparity highlights the need for targeted interventions.

High-risk specialties for burnout

  • Emergency medicine: 65%
  • Internal medicine: 60%
  • Pediatrics: 59%
  • OB/GYN: 58%
  • Infectious diseases: 58%
  • Family medicine: 57%
  • Neurology: 55%
  • Critical care: 55%
  • Anesthesiology: 55%
  • Pulmonary medicine: 54%
  • Radiology: 54%
  • Oncology: 52%
  • Gastroenterology: 52%
  • Surgery, general: 51%
  • Diabetes and endocrinology: 51%
  • Rheumatology: 50%
  • Otolaryngology: 49%
  • Allergy and immunology: 49%
  • Dermatology: 49%
  • Ophthalmology: 48%
  • Physical medicine and rehabilitation: 47%
  • Psychiatry: 47%
  • Urology: 47%
  • Plastic surgery: 46%
  • Orthopedics: 45%

This data underscores the pressing nature of physician burnout, particularly in high-stress fields. It also points to a growing interest in identifying least stressful medical specialties and low stress medical specialties as professionals seek healthier work environments.

Addressing root causes of burnout

The bulk of burnout can be traced back to an overload of bureaucratic tasks, with 61% of physicians citing this as a primary stressor. The demand for electronic health record (EHR) documentation alone adds up to 9.2 hours weekly on top of patient care. Moreover, a lack of respect from colleagues and excessive work hours further exacerbate the issue, despite the diminishing role of COVID-19-related stress in recent years.

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Physicians spend up to 9.2 hours each week completing EHR documentation. ”

Certain physicians noted feeling partly accountable for their heightened stress levels, pointing to traits such as perfectionism and excessive empathy, which cause them to work even longer hours and over-invest in patient outcomes. However, it is important to note that the primary cause of burnout is related to working conditions and not individual personality traits.

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The cure for burnout: Independent practices

How can physicians combat common workplace stressors and reduce their rates of burnout?

The most impactful solutions are invariably multifaceted, requiring a blend of systemic and personalized strategies. However, with the medical system already under immense strain, it is unlikely that widespread systemic change will take effect anytime soon, especially for health-systems-based providers. 

Our own research shows that 42% of hospital system employees are considering switching to private practice, mostly motivated by their desire for a better work-life balance. ”

The answer, therefore, lies in independent healthcare practices. Unlike physicians who are employed at larger institutions, independent practitioners have greater control over their work environment and a higher level of autonomy. This makes it easier for them to avoid some of the leading causes of burnout that are so prevalent for physicians working in hospitals and larger healthcare organizations, like working too many hours.  

Learn more about physician burnout and how to prevent it by consulting our article, Physician burnout: Consequences, causes, and solutions.

Our own research shows that 42% of hospital system employees are considering switching to private practice, mostly motivated by their desire for a better work-life balance. According to our findings, physicians working in private practices report lower rates of burnout across the board. 

When asked about the primary concerns of running a private practice, owners rate burnout near the bottom at 39%, behind: 

  • difficulty with insurance (46%), 
  • rising cost of healthcare (46%), and 
  • competition from larger healthcare organizations (44%). 

Only billing problems (28%), speed of reimbursements (26%), and the patient population getting sicker (15%) rank lower.

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While 54% of independent practice owners experience moderate burnout, 19% report hardly any burnout, and 10% claim no burnout at all. Only 14% are experiencing severe burnout, and 3% are experiencing extreme burnout, a much different picture than what we are seeing with physicians employed by larger healthcare organizations. 

How independent specialty healthcare practices combat burnout

In addition to work-life balance, independent practices can support employees by cultivating strong internal relationships and opportunities to innovate.

When physicians enjoy autonomy and control over their work, burnout rates decrease, and professional fulfillment rates rise. ”

Medscape’s Self-Employed Physicians Report shows that self-employed respondents value their autonomy above all else (64%), followed by the ability to manage their own workload and productivity (38%). This sentiment is echoed in our own report, The Independent Provider Playbook: 5 Ways to Beat Hospitals and Corporations at Their Own Game

The absence of autonomy in task execution and the inability to influence work-related decisions have been linked to increased burnout levels. When physicians enjoy autonomy and control over their work, burnout rates decrease, and professional fulfillment rates rise.

Independent providers’ autonomy is a win-win for patients and practitioners

The transition towards independent practices not only empowers physicians with greater autonomy but also significantly enhances the quality of patient care. In environments less constrained by the pressures commonly found in larger healthcare settings, physicians can allocate more time and personalized attention to each patient. This shift towards patient-centered care is a cornerstone for improving patient satisfaction, as independent practitioners are better positioned to forge meaningful relationships with their patients and tailor care to individual needs.

Such an approach not only leads to improved health outcomes but also enriches the patient experience, creating a positive feedback loop that increases job satisfaction among physicians. Witnessing the direct impact of their efforts on patient well-being reinforces the value of their work, offering a powerful antidote to burnout.

As we navigate the challenges posed by physician burnout, especially in high-stress specialties, the adoption of independent practices emerges as a vital strategy for preserving the health and well-being of both providers and patients. Emphasizing autonomy, work-life balance, and patient-centered care not only mitigates burnout but also elevates the standard of healthcare delivery.

For a deeper understanding of how to combat physician burnout and to explore strategies for enhancing patient satisfaction through patient-centered care, check out our comprehensive guide on "Physician Burnout: Consequences, Causes, and Solutions." This resource offers invaluable insights into creating a more fulfilling career in medicine, underscored by the profound impact of personal connections and patient satisfaction on professional fulfillment.

For more information on how independent practices can compete with big health systems, download Tebra’s Independent Provider Playbook: 5 Ways to Beat Hospitals and Corporations at Their Own Game.

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Anya Leibovitch, content specialist

Anya Leibovitch leverages her background in creative writing to transform technical jargon into educational content. Anya believes that independent practices foster more motivated and focused physicians who prioritize their relationships with patients — leading to enhanced care. Through her writing and research, she stays informed about the latest trends and advancements in the healthcare industry.

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