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Physician burnout: See which specialists have it the worst

Physicians feel down or seriously depressed at nearly twice the rate of the adult population.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. physicians report feeling burned-out, depressed or both, with one in three admitting that their feelings of depression have an impact on how they relate to patients and colleagues, according to the first Medscape National Report on Physician Burnout and Depression.

Physician burnout can hurt the bottom line. Research has shown, for instance, a consistent relationship between higher levels of physician burnout and lower levels of patient safety and quality of care. 

[Also: Reversing physician burnout requires total change in the culture of medicine]

That said, there are steps hospitals executives can take to ease burnout. The majority of physicians, 56 percent, said that fewer bureaucratic tasks would help alleviate burnout, for instance, while 39 percent said fewer hours would reduce their feelings or burnout. 

About 33 percent of physicians, meanwhile, said more money and a more manageable work schedule would make a difference.

[Also: AMA President: We're fighting hard to prevent info blocking, physician burnout]

Enabling exercise is another option for hospitals to consider. To cope with burnout, in fact, about half of physicians choose healthy strategies, including exercise and talking with family or friends. 

With more than 15,000 practicing physicians responding across 29 specialties, 42 percent of physicians reported experiencing burnout, 15 percent reported depression and 14 percent said they were afflicted with both; higher rates were reported by women and mid-career physicians. The report defined burnout as feelings of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, frustration or cynicism about work, and doubts about one's experience and the value of one's work.

When it came to depression, 12 percent of physicians said they "feel down," and 3 percent said they experience serious depression. Recent statistics for the general U.S. population show that 6.7 percent of adults experience depressive feelings. 

Most physicians citing depression said their work was the cause. In fact, a separate Medscape survey on Physician Lifestyle and Happiness found that most physicians are happy when they aren't working.

The highest rates of burnout were found among family physicians, intensivists, internists, neurologists and ob-gyns. The lowest rates were among plastic surgeons, dermatologists, pathologists and ophthalmologists. Burnout rates were higher among women -- 48 percent vs. 38 percent for men -- and physicians age 45-50 (50 percent vs. 35 percent for younger physicians and 41 percent for those aged 55-69.)

The Medscape report also found that depression affects patient care. One in three depressed physicians said they are more easily exasperated by patients, 32 percent said they were less engaged with patients, and 29 percent admitted to being less friendly. Nearly 15 percent admitted that their depression might cause them to make errors they wouldn't ordinarily make, and 5 percent linked it to errors they had made that could have harmed a patient.

Even larger numbers of physicians said that depression takes a toll on their relationships with colleagues, with 42 percent reporting exasperation, another 42 percent indicating less engagement, and 37 percent saying they express their frustrations in front of staff or peers.

Most physicians do not seek professional help for either burnout or depression. Instead, one-third turn to junk food, and one in five drink alcohol or binge eat.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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