The Intake

Insights for those starting, managing, and growing independent healthcare practices

What are the least stressful medical specialties?

According to a recent survey, these are the least stressful medical specialties.

Physician smiles while reading about the least stressful medical specialties on tablet

At a Glance

  • Certain medical specialties such as public health, pathology, and cardiology have lower burnout rates due to better work-life balance, fewer emergency cases, and a more manageable patient load.
  • Independent practices combat physician burnout and depression through greater autonomy, deeper doctor-patient relationships, fewer work hours, adaptability, and strong internal relationships.
  • Strategies like embracing automation, fostering a supportive culture, and providing professional development opportunities can help make independent practices more efficient and profitable while reducing burnout.

Physician burnout and depression levels are intensifying, according to a report by Medscape. 

In 2022, burnout levels increased to 53%, up from 47% in 2021. Rates of depression among physicians also rose to 23% in the same year versus 18% in 2018. Of these, 67% reported colloquial depression, while 24% said they had clinical depression. 

While burnout poses a threat to physicians everywhere, certain specialties experience lower burnout and depression levels. 

So, which are the happiest jobs in the medical field? And why do they have lower burnout rates? Read on to find out.

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Specialties with the lowest burnout rates

Medscape surveyed over 9,100 doctors across 29 medical specialties. In its report, physicians share how burnout and depression affect them and their personal and patient relationships and how they’re trying to manage it. 

Among specialties, the least stressed-out professionals with low burnout rates overall are:

  • Public Health & Preventive Medicine: 37%
  • Pathology: 39%
  • Cardiology: 43%
  • Nephrology: 44%
  • Orthopedics: 45%
  • Plastic surgery: 46%
  • Urology: 47%
  • Psychiatry: 47%
  • Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation: 47%
  • Ophthalmology: 48%
  • Dermatology: 49%
  • Allergy & Immunology: 49%
  • Otolaryngology: 49%

Reasons why these specialties may have the lowest burnout rates

So, what are physicians in the happiest medical specialties doing that others aren’t? 

Looking at Medscape’s list, specialties with low burnout rates are jobs where physicians:

  • Have better work-life balance: Physicians in low-stress medical specialties, like psychiatry, often keep standard, predictable hours, giving them more flexibility to choose their shifts or work remotely. They can spend more time with family and friends than physicians in more competitive specialties requiring work outside of hours or uncompensated overtime.
  • Are less overwhelmed: Aside from working a regular schedule, low-stress specialties give physicians rewarding job fulfillment without additional overwhelm. For example, plastic surgeons often get to be their own bosses and have flexibility over how and when to run their practices, which reduces burnout.  
  • See more outpatients and have no night shifts: A specialty with more outpatients, like pathology, means the physician often has more flexibility as they’ll usually deal with manageable health situations. Plus, there are no night shifts which require physicians to sacrifice home life for work.
  • Get fewer emergency cases: Physicians in high-stress specialties often get many emergency cases, which often means more night shifts and higher burnout and depression levels. 
Physicians in low-stress medical specialties, like psychiatry, often keep standard, predictable hours, giving them more flexibility to choose their shifts or work remotely. ”

Other non-specialty factors that impact physician burnout and depression levels include:

  • Location: Medical facilities or healthcare organizations based in urban areas often have more patients than rural areas.
  • Staffing levels: Hospitals or healthcare facilities with many physicians and nursing staff members can relieve the stress placed on doctors — especially bureaucratic tasks, which 61% of physicians rate as the major contributor to high burnout levels.
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The cure to burnout: Independent practices 

Being a physician is a fulfilling career choice, with an excellent job outlook and growing salaries. But it’s also hectic, fast-paced, challenging, and requires high levels of responsibility — especially when patients’ health outcomes and lives are at risk.

Thankfully, there’s a cure: independent practice. 

It's no wonder that 42% of hospital system workers are considering switching to independent practices in their pursuit of a better work-life balance. 

When we asked physicians running independent practices to rate the primary concerns of managing their practices, burnout ranked lower than insurance difficulty, rising healthcare costs, and competition from larger healthcare organizations. Only 14% of physicians reported experiencing severe burnout, while 3% experienced extreme burnout.  

How independent healthcare practices combat burnout

Independent practices combat physician burnout and depression levels in 5 ways:

1. More autonomy

Medscape’s report found dramatically lower burnout rates for physicians in solo practices than those in Federally Qualified Health Centers or integrated health systems with greater administrative regulations.

Sixty-four percent of physicians in small practice settings attribute lower burnout rates to more autonomy, while 38% say working in independent practices gives them more control over their productivity levels.  

42% of hospital system workers are considering switching to independent practices in their pursuit of a better work-life balance. ”

From our own research, health-system providers interested in switching to a private practice model say they’re driven by 3 primary factors: 

  • Better work-life balance
  • More control over the work environment and patient intake
  • The opportunity to develop deeper relationships with their patients

Small practices allow physicians to manage their lives, schedules, and decision-making, which may insulate them against typical feelings and symptoms of burnout and depression. 

2. Deeper doctor-patient relationships

Physicians who run independent practices have more quality time and interaction with their patients, which larger practices often sacrifice in the name of “efficiency.” 

Small practices allow physicians to design and optimize their schedules so they can focus more on patient care — not filling out forms and jumping through regulatory hoops. Spending as much time with patients as they deserve often leads to deeper relationships, greater job satisfaction, and less burnout.

3. Fewer work hours

Physicians in independent practice work fewer hours per week than hospital-employed attending physicians, who have less autonomy in scheduling their work hours. The latter work schedules are more rigid and regulated. They take turns working during different time periods in a day and on weekends and holidays. 

Plus, hospitals that employ physicians rigorously define their clinical, teaching, and research duties, sometimes even assigning them organizational administrative duties to assist the hospital management.  

A small physician-owned practice offers greater autonomy in setting schedules and work hours, resulting in lower burnout and depression levels. 

4. Innovation and adaptability 

Aside from work-life balance, physicians running independent practices have higher adaptive reserve scores, according to the American Medical Association. This means their internal capacity for organizational learning and development is stronger, as they can innovate and adapt to ever-changing patient needs, technological advancements, and the greater healthcare landscape. 

A small practice may experiment with different approaches to find the most successful way to deliver services to their patients in the shortest time possible. They can adjust systems and pivot without needing multiple committee approvals and complex workflows like larger healthcare organizations. 

A small physician-owned practice offers greater autonomy in setting schedules and work hours, resulting in lower burnout and depression levels. ”

Our own research shows that greater efficiency and productivity result in happier staff and patients. Modernizing every facet of your practice with digital tools and automation, for example, gives patients the convenience they expect and a better in-office experience. It also ensures team members stay on top of their work and reduces burnout.

5. Strong internal relationships

There’s a social contagion in burnout. Physicians exist in an ecosystem of other health workers or medical staff. If they’re burned out, it’s only a matter of time before it affects physicians, too.

In small practices, physicians have a greater influence over the culture of the practice. This means they can create a culture that aligns with their own values, like talking and listening to each other and providing growth opportunities. 

Consider using the L.E.A.D approach:

  • Listening: Hold regular meetings or send out anonymous services to get employee feedback on their challenges and improve office dynamics.
  • Encouragement: Regularly recognize and empower administrative employees so they know you value their contributions to the office and team.
  • Acknowledgement: Appreciate employees, especially when they go the extra mile, to ensure they feel seen and valued. A simple “thank you” or financial incentives like overtime pay or paid gas cards are good examples of expressing appreciation.
  • Development: Provide employees with professional development opportunities and ongoing support so they can enhance their skills and progress in their careers.

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Elsier Otachi

Elsier Otachi is a healthcare and business writer. She has several family members in the healthcare industry, and believes independent practices offer patients more personalized care and treatment than larger systems. Her ultimate goal is to add value through information sharing, and her passion for writing about healthcare is rooted in getting to help create better health outcomes and improve lives for the better.

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