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How much does physician burnout cost? Researchers come up with a number

Physician burnout costs health care organizations about $7,600 annually for each physician they employ, Stanford researchers have found.

The epidemic of job dissatisfaction among U.S. physicians -- nearly half show at least some signs of burnout -- is costing the nation about $5 billion every year, researchers have concluded. For health care organizations, that works out to an average of $7,600 per physician they employ annually.

But that's a lowball estimate: The researchers, from Stanford and other organizations, counted only the costs associated with physicians leaving the field or reducing their hours. They didn't consider the price of lower-quality care, which burned-out physicians are more likely to provide, along with poor patient outcomes and malpractice lawsuits.

They also didn't consider the costs to a health care organization when patients find another practice after a physician leaves, or costs accrued when physicians are frequently absent.

"We're not calculating poor performance," said Mickey Trockel, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and an author of the study. "The only thing that's factored in is the economic effect of them leaving or reducing their hours."

Their article appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

A 2017 survey conducted by Tait Shanafelt, MD, director of Stanford's WellMD Center, found that physician burnout had eased from three years earlier, dropping from about 54% to 44%. But the burnout rate is far higher in medicine than in other fields, which have a burnout average of about 28%.

Trockel said the researchers wanted to assign a cost to burnout because they thought finances would motivate health care leaders.

"In today's health care world, resources are always scarce," he said. "But if physician burnout impacts the bottom line, we have everyone's attention."

"We think there are more important reasons than finances -- well-being of physicians, better performance -- but if finances are what motivate changes, then we have a major win," he added.

Photo by Gerd Altmann

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