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Impact of physician stress is underestimated

Doctors are more stressed out than ever before says a new study by Physician Wellness Services (PWS) and Cejka Search and the impact of that increased stress is underestimated to the detriment of all.

“The survey found that stress among physicians is a) at a higher level than previous studies have found and b) that it is growing for the majority of physicians,” said Alan Rosenstein, MD, medical director, PWS. “The implications of this are serious, both for individual physicians and for healthcare organizations, especially at a time when there is a significant physician shortage that will remain in effect for the foreseeable future.”

PWS’ and Cejka’s survey results are based on 2,069 completed surveys. Among the findings:

  • 87 percent of respondents said they are moderately-to-severely stressed/burned out on an average day.
  • 63 percent said they were more stressed or burned out than they were three years ago; 34.3 percent said they were much more stressed than they were three years ago.

“The problem is that it’s much more intense than one realizes and can frequently lead to frustration, dissatisfaction, fatigue, burnout and depression which can interfere with job, home life, and physician well-being,” said Rosenstein.

What causes physician stress? Respondents said the top three external stress factors were:

  • the state of the U.S. economy (51.6 percent)
  • healthcare reform (46.4 percent)
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ policies (41.2 percent)

Respondents said the top three work-related factors were:

  • paperwork and administrative demands (39.8 percent)
  • too many hours at work (33.3 percent)
  • on-call schedules and expectations (26.2 percent)

When asked what were the top three things that would help reduce stress, respondents said

  • better work hours and/or less call (32.5 percent)
  • more or better work/life balance (30.7 percent)
  • improved finances, compensation, reimbursement (29 percent)
  • greater levels of respect and support from administration and patients (27.4 percent)
  • more time and support for self-care, such as exercise, more sleep, attention to health (20.5 percent)
  • fewer, or help with, administrative burdens or demands (20.4 percent)

Respondents said that because of the levels of stress in their lives, they feel decreasing job satisfaction, less productive, more irritable, moody, angry, hostile and tired, have more conflicts at home and at work and worry about the decisions they make that may impact patient safety.

“(Physician stress) is a much more significant problem than we realize,” Rosenstein said. “Physicians can’t do it on their own. We need to help them by making healthcare organizations more aware of the problem and its impact.”

[See also: Three of top four most overrated jobs are in healthcare.]

Healthcare organizations seeking to recruit and retain physicians can have a competitive edge if they offer physicians what they’re looking for said Lori Schutte, president of healthcare recruiting firm Cejka Search. “Healthcare organizations need to provide an environment in which physicians can thrive and finding and offering solutions to help deal with stress and burnout plays a huge role in that.”

“From a business standpoint, it is critical to understand the implications of physician turnover on a practice or medical group,” Schutte added. “Besides the disruption on patients, other physicians and office staff, turnover is also disruptive to an organization’s budget. The cost of losing just one physician, compounded by the cost of recruiting and on-boarding his or her replacement, can reach over $1 million.”

“The (return on investment) for addressing stress and burnout in physicians is high,” Rosenstein said. “The recommended initiatives in the study have costs attached to them, but they are small in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to recruit and on-board a new physician to replace one who has left because their stress has become too overwhelming – or, for that matter, lost revenue due to absenteeism and presenteeism/lower productivity, or the patient safety issues and resulting adverse events, increased medical errors and heightened medical malpractice risk.”

Follow HFN associate editor Stephanie Bouchard on Twitter @SBouchardHFN.