7 Effects of Physician Burnout

Physician burnout, as discussed in a previous blog, is a growing problem facing physicians, healthcare practices, and patients. Previously, we tackled the best ways to identify this. Here, we will review the potential effects of physician burnout if left unchecked. While these seven effects cover a large spectrum of negative consequences, this is not an exhaustive list.

Remember, if you or someone you work with clearly exemplifies the signs of physician burnout or its harmful effects, seek professional assistance. There are many ways to alleviate the endless stress that physicians endure.

1. Disruptive Behavior

As mentioned in the “Diagnosing Physician Burnout” blog, cynicism can indicate an early symptom of burnout. While being cynical can seem like merely an attitude problem, this sort of negativity to colleagues, sometimes about particular patients, can create awkwardness or conflict that disrupt the normally professional environment of a doctor’s office or emergency room.

2. Increased Medical Errors

A study published by the American Medical Association found that physicians with higher levels of burnout would also be more susceptible to an increase in medical errors. This could be a result of a lack of empathy or focus. As we will discuss below, more medical errors create exponentially more problems for physicians, patients, and healthcare organizations.

3. Increased Risk of Malpractice

An increase in medical errors opens the floodgates for potential malpractice suits against healthcare organizations. This can pose a serious economic threat to those practices and the many people they employ. Also, a malpractice suit can blemish any typically outstanding medical professional’s resume, creating lifelong problems of credibility.

4. Failed Relationships

Physician burnout doesn’t just stay at work. It permeates all aspects of a physician’s life because a physician doesn’t simply clock in and clock out every day. They take the stresses home with them, to their significant others and family members. This increase of exhaustion, depersonalization, and cynicism takes a toll on personal relationships.

5. Substance Abuse

Contributing to the failing relationships and another effect of physician burnout is an increase in substance abuse. The same American Medical Association study mentioned earlier found that. “Work-related burnout can spill over into personal life and contribute to broken relationships, substance abuse, and other types of distress.” The consequences of this could exacerbate every effect mentioned so far, particularly the increased risk of malpractice and failed relationships.

Sadly, as is with the rest of the general population, an increase in substance abuse leads to higher suicide rates. Physicians are already at higher risk than other American professions to commit suicide, making the growth of physician burnout particularly life-threatening.

6. Lower Patient Satisfaction Scores

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a likely outcome of physician burnout would be lower patient satisfaction scores, given the other effects previously discussed. If a physician is more likely to make a medical error, show less empathy, or create an uncomfortable environment for colleagues and patients, a low satisfaction score would logically follow. Diagnosing and treating burnout becomes crucial at this juncture. Other physicians can sometimes cover for a colleague going through a rough time. However, when burnout clearly affects the patient’s experience, that can impact both the healthcare organization’s reputation and bottom line.  

7. Longer Patient Recovery

Studies have found that “the depersonalization dimension of physician burnout was associated with patient outcomes of lower satisfaction and longer post-discharge recovery time.” It’s clear in this instance that the attitude of physicians goes a long way when treating patients. Just like how a spouse or family member can internalize the stress and negativity that one might bring home from work, a patient internalizes the absent-mindedness of her most trusted healthcare provider. More than any other job, a positive relationship between those seeking medical treatment and those offering, goes far beyond just technical capabilities. The relationship needs strong emotional support. Unfortunately, a consistent trend among all physicians, whether it be surgeons, pediatricians, or orthopedic specialists, is the growing reliance and time in front of EHR systems. This means less eye contact and more time copying notes into a computer.

In our next blog, we will discuss how one should treat physician burnout.

If you’d like to learn more about physician burnout, click here to watch a recorded webinar on the subject.

 

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