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Stanford University School of Medicine

Countering the problem of physician burnout

The medical profession is just starting to grapple with the problem of physician burnout, which is reaching epidemic proportions. More than half of physicians surveyed in recent studies report some symptoms of burnout, such as emotional exhaustion, loss of a sense of meaning in work or a feeling of low accomplishment or ineffectiveness.

“I think most health care leaders now realize this is a threat to their organization, but there is also uncertainty that they can do anything effective to address it,” Tait Shanafelt, MD, a pioneer in the field of physician wellness, told me. “They say, ‘It’s a national epidemic, what can we do?’ My experience has shown that an individual organization that is committed to this at the highest level of leadership and that invests in well-designed interventions can move the needle and run counter to the national trend of physician distress and burnout.”

Massive changes in the health care system have put more of a burden on physicians, who have to contend with greater workloads, regulatory requirements, paperwork, financial pressures and public scrutiny, Shanafelt and colleagues wrote in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. At the same time, physicians have less autonomy in the work place, which can contribute to distress and lack of satisfaction.

The trend is particularly worrisome in that doctors who are distressed may provide lower quality care, studies show. Burnout has been linked to physician errors, higher mortality rates among hospitalized patients and less compassionate care.

Shanafelt is among those working to counter the trend and improve physician well-being. At the Mayo Clinic, he led the Department of Medicine’s Program on Physician Well-Being and launched an initiative that reduced physician burnout rates at a time when they were on the rise nationally.

On Sept. 1, he'll join Stanford Medicine as its first chief wellness officer, making it the first U.S. academic medical center to create such a position. He said he hopes to build a model program at Stanford that other medical centers will emulate. He'll lead Stanford’s WellMD Center, which has engaged more than 200 physicians in programs that offer peer support, stress reduction, and guidance on how cultivate compassion and resilience. The center also aims to relieve some of the burdens on physicians through increased efficiency and simplified work place systems, such as electronic medical records.

Stanford Medicine also will host the first American Conference on Physician Health, to be held Oct. 12 in San Francisco. The American Medical Association and Mayo Clinic are co-hosts.

Previously: Using arts and communication to help physicians improve health, avoid suicideAn Rx for physician burnout and New surgeons take time out for mental health
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