Diagnosing Physician Burnout

The growing issue of physician burnout troubles healthcare organizations, patients’ trust, and the well-being of our colleagues. It’s time to learn how to diagnose this phenomenon before it becomes unmanageable.

First, we must recognize the fact that physician burnout has grown significantly in recent years and continues to. A recent Medscape Physician Lifestyle Survey found the percentage of physicians claiming some sort of burnout rose from 45.5 percent to 54.4 percent in just three years. The cause of this burnout is no secret. The top three reasons that physicians claimed were “Too many bureaucratic tasks,” “Spending too many hours at work,” and “Increasing computerization of practice.”  

Unless your practice still doesn’t have computers, or you’ve invested in technology to reduce time in front of them, assume you and your colleagues now face a higher risk of physician burnout. Like any good coworker, we should reach out to those we think might be suffering. The rest of this blog will help you unofficially diagnose possible symptoms of physician burnout. Hopefully, the more we know as an industry, the better we can care for our colleagues in the future.

The Three Symptoms of Physician Burnout


It’s impossible to remain upbeat at all times, especially in a career so physically and emotionally tiring. However, there’s a big difference between being tired at work and being exhausted by your profession. Do you notice any colleagues consistently showing up late or needing to leave early? Do they seem more absent-minded or unable to focus? Maybe they’re continually frustrated with the administrative tasks at hand. While these behaviors seem broad and unrelated, they can snowball into larger, potentially serious performance issues, or in extreme scenarios, even malpractice. Physician burnout might begin with exhaustion but usually ends in something much worse.


Physicians deal with patients face-to-face almost daily. This vital ritual provides the patient with a needed level of trust and accountability that all physicians hope to provide. When colleagues noticeably go from jovial and inquisitive to rushed and indifferent, the patient obviously suffers, and so does the physician. Diligent EHR documentation, while important, can take away from the one-on-one communication with a patient.

These changes in personality, like making less eye contact or asking fewer questions, are all signs of depersonalization and overall fatigue. If left unaddressed for too long, this could result in a deepening inattentiveness and apathy, neither of which improve the patients’ nor physicians’ experiences.


Physicians should never doubt the efficacy of their work, yet some cannot help but feel like the constant stream of patients and their problems will never end — which is true. There will always be people in need of medical attention. But for a physician herself to feel that nothing she does will make a difference is the strongest sign of burnout. A sign of this change might be an increase of biased comments about patients and the futility of treating them. Often this takes the form of comments regarding emotional stability, weight, and intelligence. This Medscape survey found it more likely for a physician to report bias in themselves when they also reported burnout. Conversely, those that reported non-burnout were less likely to report bias.

Physician burnout doesn’t have a check box in the waiting room, and you cannot search for it on WebMD. The recognizing and treating of this troubling phenomenon falls on other physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers. While this list of symptoms can help you spot physician burnout among colleagues, it is by no means an exhaustive list. Consider these three as mere indicators of a larger problem — one that if left unchecked could have far more consequences than just a bad day at work.

The growing reliance of computers in medical offices and the amount of time a physician needs to devote in front of them clearly has contributed to this rise of physician burnout. If your medical practice has not yet considered investing in technology that would limit the time spent in front of a computer, let’s connect. iScribe relieves physicians of manual data entry and screen-time, allowing them to focus more on patients.

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

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