The Intake

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

Physician burnout: Consequences, causes and solutions

Burnout is a major reason doctors leave the profession, close their practice and delivery poor patient care. Find out the main causes and how to address each.

doctor reading about physician burnout

A survey released by JAMA Open Network in December 2023 found that 38% of academic physicians met the criteria for burnout. Of the more than 18,000 physicians who responded to the survey from October 2019 to July 2021, only 39% experienced professional fulfillment.

The American Medical Association offers more dire figures for physician burnout. Nearly 63% of physicians reported in 2021 that they were experiencing burnout at least once each week. That number was up from 44% in 2017 and 46% in 2011. Factors that lead to this burnout include:

  • Job demands
  • Work-life balance
  • Workplace stress
  • Staff shortages
  • Emotional fatigue

“The public health emergency has again reminded us that physicians and other health care professionals on the front line face high levels of stress. While we are taking care of our patients, we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. ” – Thomas K. Madejski, MD

Physician burnout remains a serious concern in the healthcare industry. Being a physician has always been a stressful job. These days, a number of factors are contributing to rising stress and increasing burnout. Rapid changes in the industry, more regulations and growing patient demands all play a role.

According to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic, physicians are at a higher risk of burnout than those in other professional fields. And if you own your own practice, you face the stressors associated with being a physician plus those that come with running a business.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the grinding issues that cause this problem and suggest ways to ease the pressure.

The consequences of physician burnout

The effects of physician burnout are far-reaching. Burnout has been associated with an increase in medical errors. When looking at burnout-related physician turnover, it could cost as much as $17 billion annually in the US alone.

The 2023 Medscape Physician Burnout & Depression Report says 53% of respondents reported burnout. And of the 23% of physicians who report being depressed, 34% said they are more easily exasperated with patients and 23% said they’re less careful when taking patient notes as a result. Mental health is clearly a factor in physician productivity and job satisfaction.

What causes physician burnout?

Burnout’s 3 key dimensions are:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • A sense of detachment from the job
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness

The responsibility of completing too many tasks is the root cause of the overwhelming sense of exhaustion that hits many medical professionals. Physicians report that they are not able to offer each patient enough of their attention. This may be because of office protocol or because they are working too many hours.

Here are 5 of the most common reasons a physician might experience burnout:

Too many administrative chores

Work overload, as a chronic job condition, contributes to burnout. It depletes the capacity of the physician to meet the demands of the job. Of physicians who report burnout, 60% blame bureaucratic tasks — charting and paperwork. About a third report that the “computerization of the practice” or the rise of electronic health records (EHR) is a factor.

So how much time are physicians spending on paperwork or related tasks? According to the Medscape report, 74% say they spend at least 10 hours a week on administrative tasks. More than a third of that group said they spend more than 20 hours a week on bureaucratic work. A recent Mayo Clinic study puts that number even higher. The average physician reports spending roughly half of their workday plus 28 additional night and weekend hours a month completing EHR tasks.

Not having enough time with patients

Spending more time on administrative tasks leaves physicians with less time for patient care, which is where most doctors find the most joy in their work. This is affecting physician morale.

In another recent report, doctors noted that their relationships with their patients were the most rewarding part of their job. This is followed by finding answers and diagnoses, and knowing that they’re making the world a better place. But fully 55% of physicians said their individual time with patients has declined since they started practicing.

Working too many hours

Physicians typically work long hours, and increased demands on their time are stretching them even thinner. “Too many hours at work” was third on the list of factors that contribute to burnout in the 2023 Medscape report. The poll found that more than half of physicians working over 60 hours a week report feeling burned out. That number increases to 57% among doctors who work more than 70 hours a week. All of that work is having a negative impact on their mental health.

Keeping up with growing patient demand

Certainly, there are massive physician shortages. Despite that, patients want more and more from their care providers, and physicians are expected to continually adapt to evolving patient demands to keep their patients happy, healthy, and coming back.

What do patients want most? More than half say that convenience and easy access to care are the most important factors in their decision-making when choosing a new physician, according to a Healthcare Consumer Trends Report by NRC Health. That’s ahead of insurance coverage, and it's even ahead of quality of care.

Amid physician shortages, consumer demands on the healthcare system are propelling an influx of retail clinics and on-demand care options. This is increasing both competition and pressure on providers, both of which can lead to job burnout.

Worrying about online reputation

When choosing a healthcare provider, 74% of people consider a positive online reputation to be very or extremely important, according to a recent Tebra survey. And nearly 1 in 5 patients consider only providers with a minimum of 4.5 out of 5 stars. A strong online reputation has become essential for bringing new patients through the front door.

Providers know this and, as a result, feel uneasy about their online reputations. A whopping 88% of providers say they worry about receiving negative physician feedback. Their main concerns are that a negative review will give others the wrong impression of the practice, will be unfair or inaccurate, or will prevent the practice from acquiring new patients.

What can be done to cure physician burnout?

Eliminating doctor burnout entirely may not be possible, but addressing common issues can help. One of the most important ways to ease physician stress is to improve the efficiency of the practice. Finding ways to improve efficiency can help reduce or even eliminate tedious tasks for physicians and improve the workplace culture.

Let's review 6 ways to improve your practice’s overall efficiency.

Adopt a unified practice management platform

Both insurance regulations and overall healthcare regulations are increasingly stringent. Today, doctors are required to report quality measures, comply with HIPAA, and use a certified EHR system, all of which add work.

Adopting a modern, digital platform to manage both the front and back end of your practice can help to streamline and simplify administrative tasks, saving time and stress. Plus, putting in less time on manual tasks gives you more time to do what you really love — spend time with your patients and provide the best possible care.

An intuitive EHR system can save you time by making charting and reporting easier. Look for a platform with an easy user interface that also is cloud-based, so you can access it from anywhere. Flexible documentation tools allow you to do things like create notes, write prescriptions, and code encounters quickly and easily. Additionally, features like pre-built templates, text shortcuts, and note duplication can also speed things up while still letting you capture the depth of detail you need.

Automated software solutions such as Tebra can help with appointment scheduling, email and text reminders, and patient feedback requests. These solutions can improve employee performance and free up your staff to tackle more valuable tasks.

Choosing an EHR system that integrates with billing and scheduling tools also helps to accelerate payments, minimize error-based denials, and personalize the patient experience — all of which can have a positive impact on overall practice health. And the better your practice is running, the less stress on you.

Delegate tasks and job demands

With independent practices, physicians are often the owners, too, and tend to take a “if you want the job done right, do it yourself” approach to administration. But as a physician, your time is the most valuable and should be put to the best use. Maximizing physician productivity and practice revenue are easier if you delegate.

For example, if you have medical assistants or nurses on your team, consider assigning part of the charting and note work to them to give you more time to focus on care. Replacing the clipboard with digital forms to collect information before a visit also helps to streamline processes and lets you see pertinent information before you enter the exam room. This elevates the experience for both you and your patients, creating the kind of quality connection that makes being a doctor so satisfying — another good way to avoid burnout.

And be sure to address staffing issues quickly. That will reduce energy depletion for you and improve employee morale and employee well-being.

Empower patients 

Can your patients download and fill out forms from your website before their appointment? You can save time and reduce staff hours by giving patients this option. Better yet, send them an SMS message that lets them fill out forms on their phone. This is one of the 5 key interactions that patients prefer to do digitally. That means this stress management technique benefits both the practice and the patients.

You can also use your website to answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) that your patients may have. This can reduce the number of incoming phone calls as well as time spent in the waiting room.

Maintain a healthy work-life balance

Practicing medicine is inherently stressful, and so is owning a business — making it all the more vital that you take regular breaks. Working long hours can lead to physical exhaustion and health issues, and it compounds over time.

According to the Medscape Physician Lifestyle and Happiness report, 49% of physicians take 3 to 4 weeks off a year while 27% take just 1 to 2.

Optimizing end-to-end practice management can help provide the peace of mind you need to be able to take much-needed breaks. Knowing that your practice is running smoothly, from promoting growth, to retaining patients, to staying in the black, makes it easier to step away throughout the year. Automating simple tasks like appointment scheduling, reminders, and feedback requests saves your staff time while also improving your patient experience — both of which can increase revenue. When you’re more profitable, you can afford to bring in outside help while you’re away.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is important for everyone, especially those in high-stress jobs. One of the best things you can do for your practice is prioritize your own health and well-being. Schedule time during the week to spend with your family. Exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet. Make sure you get enough sleep. And take time out of your busy schedule to do whatever makes you happy — whether that’s reading a book, going outside, or just relaxing and doing nothing.

Doctors tend to have a superhuman complex, but you don’t have to be everything to everyone. Make sure you take good care of yourself, too.

What's more, you set the tone for your practice. "Workaholics" create stress for the people around them, as well as for themselves. You can boost employee engagement and performance by setting a healthy, positive example.

Take control of your online reputation

A negative review can be stressful, but you need to maintain a strong online reputation. Have a strategy in place for how to respond. Send out an automated request asking your patients to leave a review following their appointment. This can also help you safeguard your practice’s reputation.

The public health emergency has again reminded us that physicians and other health care professionals on the front line face high levels of stress. While we are taking care of our patients, we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. ”
Thomas K Madjeski M.D.

A steady stream of reviews can help boost your average star rating. Consumers are paying more and more attention to the number of reviews that a service receives. In fact, 76% of consumers regularly read reviews to make decisions, according to the Local Consumer Review Survey.

Change the form of your practice

The 2023 Medscape report found that physicians in solo practices experienced less burnout than those in other work settings. Independent physicians have more autonomy and more control of the level of productivity they maintain. This would require a major shift, though it's not as big as a career change. Even so, some doctors might benefit from changing the form of their practice.

Physician burnout and you

Physician burnout does not have to be a part of your work life. Following these tips can help you decrease the amount of time that you are spending on non-medical work. They can help you spend more time doing what you love: delivering excellent patient care.

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Written by

Bianca Wollman, Medical marketing consultant

Bianca Wollman is the Senior Manager of Customer Marketing at Tebra and resides in Marina Del Rey, Calif. She has extensive experience consulting private medical practices on SEO and marketing strategies and has led healthcare customer marketing efforts for the last 3 years. Bianca previously worked in the tourism marketing industry in Washington, DC.

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