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Doctor burnout: a worldwide epidemic

Doctor burnout: a worldwide epidemic - Featured Image

Burnout is the modern day pandemic affecting the medical profession. It is a condition which leaves many of us in denial. After all, it can’t be seen on a biopsy result or under an electron microscope, so how real can it be?

Very real.

Up to 59% of doctors are burnt out, according to a 2017 Medscape report. Some studies report burnout rates of up to 65% in some specialty groups, and the rates of burnout have increased over the last 10 years. It would be unlikely to consider that this is simply because there is greater awareness of the condition.

50% of medical students and 70% of junior doctors are burnt out.

This is staggering, and these results are across the board globally. Not just the USA and not just UK. These are overall global professional rates of burnout and the rates are deeply alarming.

Even if we had 30% of the profession suffering from burnout, this would still be a pandemic, yet there is not the global attention to this matter that it deserves.

If there was an outbreak of influenza or a critical disease globally that was wiping out even 5% of people and removing them from the work force, there would be a worldwide inquiry.

Yet here we have matters where there are up to 65% rates of burnout, over half of the entire medical profession, including students, and there is no worldwide inquiry into what is going on in medicine.

Certainly there is no vaccine likely to be available, but the matter is critical.

Ought not the World Health Organisation be taking a key interest in this matter?

The WHO has released a report stating that there is a worldwide epidemic of chronic non communicable diseases, yet there is no report stating that there is a worldwide epidemic of high level dysfunction in our doctors, the very people who are caring for those with illness and disease.

The health of our global population is clearly in crisis with increasing rates of illness and disease to the extent that the WHO has said there is a worldwide epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases.

We need healthy health care providers to lead the way

If our health care providers are in a state of ill health, which is what burnout is, then we have an even bigger crisis on our hands.

These rates of burnout show that the medical profession is in crisis, and with it our global future health care is in crisis, at a time when we need healthy healthcare providers more than ever.

Burnout is not a simple matter of being a little bit tired. It is associated with higher rates of:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue – both physical and emotional
  • Increased risk of medical errors
  • Decreased rates of patient satisfaction,
  • Causes people to leave the medical profession
  • Higher rates of suicidal thoughts and increased risk of suicide (in a profession where the rate of suicide is already at least 2 times higher than the general population with some studies reporting up to 5.7 times higher rates)
  • Higher rates of cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal pain
  • Deep professional unhappiness and cynicism
  • De-personalisation and decreased understanding and compassion

Neither of which are features desirable or sustainable in someone who is dealing with people in situations that are incredibly trying.

Burnout is not something that is random affecting a few ‘sensitive’ people with ‘poor coping skills’. It quite specifically affects over half of the medical profession, people who specifically enter a profession because they are dedicated to caring for others.

We need to stop and ask not only why, but how.

Are we to blame the ‘nature of the person’ choosing to do medicine, and blame them for simply ‘not coping’? Or perhaps rather is it time to take a wider look at the global culture of medicine that fails to nurture the people that do medicine?

Being in a war zone and in the armed forces is highly stressful, as I am sure that we would all agree and understand. Yet people who have been in the army and in a war zone report that medicine is far more stressful. This does not make sense given that we say that we are a caring profession that values and cares for people.

I have heard people formerly in the army say they were more cared for as people in the army and given greater respect and compassion as people than they have been in medicine.

It is clear that there is a big issue here.

Doctors are people too. If we are to be true to medicine and its foundations of care for all people, then we must equally care for the health and well-being of those who are doing their best to care for others, those within the profession.

Literally over half of our medical profession is burnt out. This is not simply a matter of a few people being a bit tired from too much work to be decried for ‘not coping’. This is an institutionalised issue, a worldwide crisis and one that global attention needs to be paid to.

Dr Maxine Szramka is a Sydney-based rheumatologist and Clinical Senior Lecturer at the University of Wollongong. She blogs regularly at Dr Maxine Speaks.

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