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Physician burnout is high but most doctors show outright unwillingness to seek help, survey finds

While majority of physicians see burnout in colleagues and half report it in themselves, most refuse to seek mental health help.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

While physician burnout has made its way to the forefront of hot-button issues in the healthcare world, workloads have been slow to change and physicians are showing strong resistance to recognizing the toll it's taking on their mental health by seeking help. That's the alarming contradiction found by after surveying more than 3,700 physicians in nearly every specialty, work setting and region of the country.

In 2016, conducted a similar study, and this year's survey examines changes over the past two years in physicians' sentiments about their profession. 

Burnout is a pervasive and potentially damaging force within healthcare, and even though 74 percent of physicians report frequently seeing symptoms of burnout in others, only 52 said they themselves regularly feeling burned out. Fifty-two percent said burnout affected their work performance.

The top two specialties that recognized burnout in themselves and reported it affecting their job performance were emergency medicine, psychiatry, with primary care.  The most common burnout symptoms physicians reported experiencing were irritability and apathy, and about half of physicians also reported chronic fatigue, impaired memory and attention.

When it comes to how this condition impacted their lives, 45 percent of physicians said it affected their job satisfaction; more than a quarter said family relationships were affected.

Enter the massive wall between recognizing an issue and getting help. While 51 percent reported that their workload had impacted their mental health, only 17 percent have sought help and even more alarming, only 16 percent have considered meeting with a mental health professional. Two-thirds said they would not consider meeting with one at all. This result is very likely linked to another finding of the survey, that 53 percent of physicians feel mental health is a taboo topic to discuss.

Access to mental health services may be part of the problem. While 23 percent reported having  access to mental healthcare through work, most said they didn't. But a lack of desire for access also goes along with the findings above. Of those who don't have access to mental healthcare, 35 percent said they would like it but 42 percent said they would not. Meanwhile, the the effects of burnout and mental health issues among physicians continues to spiral, with 6 percent of physicians reporting having contemplated suicide because of the demands of their profession and 11 percent saying they take medication for anxiety or depression. For those taking medication, most said their profession contributes to their anxiety or depression.

Small improvements in reported workloads offer some hope, but not much. More than half of physicians, 55 percent, said they have less free time outside of work than when they first started their career. Still that is an improvement over 2016, when 64 percent said their free time had shrunk. 

Also, while 56 percent of physicians report feeling overworked, this also is an improvement over the 65 percent who felt that way in 2016. However, more than half of physicians still considered leaving the profession within the past few years due to workload, and of those, 69 percent said it was due to "dealing with bureaucracy and administrative burden" or feeling overworked and stressed. A close third reason cited was too much time spent entering data in EHRs.

Only small gains were seen in the time physicians actually spend with patients. Most physicians,46 percent, feel they spend less time with patients now than when they started their careers and 42 percent said the amount of time with patients hadn't changed. However, a resounding 89 percent want more direct time with patients. In 2016, 58 percent of physicians said they were spending less time patients than they used to.

It's clear that those charged with curing the ills of others are not so adept at addressing their own, especially when it comes to mental health. While burnout may be a mainstream topic, recognized as pervasive and not so taboo to talk about when referencing colleagues, it seems the shutters snap tightly closed when it comes to recognizing burnout in oneself and getting the necessary help to combat the mental health issues that can stem from it. 

It is startling that so many physicians report an outright unwillingness to seek help for mental health struggles and that a large portion don't even want it available through their workplace. It speaks to a culture often said to thrive on pushing oneself to the brink, a culture that some have written needs change at the most basic level: medical school. Incorporating education on burnout, dealing with the mental rigors of the profession, and effective coping tools could change the future of physicians for the better. It could, in fact, save lives. 

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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