‘Doctors Became Overworked Robots’: Physician Burnout Jumps Dramatically In 3-Year Study

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RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Physicians may be more stressed than ever — one recent survey found that half were thinking about hanging up their stethoscopes for good. New research continues to demonstrate the demise of doctors, with burnout levels jumping dramatically over just a three-year span.

According to researchers at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, physician burnout increased from 45.5% to 54.4% between 2011 and 2014. The researchers say doctors aren’t more depressed or exhausted by their home life, but rather at their jobs.

Drs. Andrew G. Alexander and Kenneth A. Ballou isolated three factors for physician burnout, according to their research:

  • The traditional doctor-patient relationship has been dwarfed by the relationship between health insurance providers and patients, with companies standing in the way of fast and appropriate treatments ordered by physicians.
  • Doctors are feeling more cynical as a whole, because patients don’t expect continuity of care anymore and routinely change doctors.
  • General lack of enthusiasm for their work.

“It should be a treat to care about another person, but I see that too many of our seasoned physicians are frustrated with medicine, and it rubs off onto the physicians in training,” Alexander says in a university release. “Doctors have a wonderful job, yet they are inundated with numerous extraneous burdens that collectively rob them of the joy of medicine.”

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The researchers compared data from between 2011 and 2014 on physician burnout and their satisfaction with their work-life balance. They found that physician burnout indicators are the highest in the fields of emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. Alexander and Ballou also hypothesized that five transformational medical practice events which occurred between 2011 and 2014 contributed to the spike in physician burnout.

“These are hospital purchases of medical groups, rising drug prices, the Affordable Care Act, ‘pay for performance’ in which providers are offered financial incentives to improve quality and efficiency, and mandated electronic health records,” explains Alexander. “Doctors now spend more time with electronic health records than they do with patients. Electronic health records were pushed by the government at great expense and without regard to the effects upon patient or physician health. Go into any hospital and look for the nurses and the doctors. You will find them sitting in front of computers. They are not happy, and their patients are not healthier.”

Alexander says that the creation of electronic health record (EHR) systems have especially been a source of great frustration for doctors. Though initially subsidized by the government and viewed as beneficial to both doctors and patients, doctors have found themselves spending more time filing notes and results, consequently cutting the time they have for their patients. Subsidies have run out, leading to extra costs for practices. In effect, “doctors became overworked robots,” comments Alexander.

“Doctors should oppose EHRs that occupy valuable doctor-patient time and which use billing diagnoses rather than patient assessments. EHRs need to be portable. Computerized notes should be templated for meaningful patient care notes,” he suggests.

The study was published in The American Journal of Medicine.

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