Conference Coverage

Some burnout factors are within a physician’s control



– Eat a healthy lunch. Get more sleep. Move your body. How many times in the course of a week do you give patients gentle reminders to practice these most basic steps of self-care? And how many times in the course of a week do you allow these basics to go by the wayside for yourself?

Self-care is one of the elements that can defend against physician burnout, Carol Burke, MD, said at a session on physician burnout held during the annual Digestive Disease Week®. Personal self-care can make a real difference, and shouldn’t be ignored as the profession works to reel back some of the institutional changes that challenge physicians today.

In the workplace, unhealthy stress levels can contribute to burnout, disruptive behavior, decreased productivity, and disengagement. Burnout – a response to chronic stress characterized by a diminished sense of personal accomplishment and emotional exhaustion – can result in cynicism, a lack of compassion, and feelings of depersonalization, said Dr. Burke.

Contributors to physician stress have been well documented, said Dr. Burke, a professor of gastroenterology at the Cleveland Clinic. These range from personal debt and the struggle for work-life balance to an increased focus on metrics and documentation at the expense of authentic patient engagement. All of these factors are measurable by means of the validated Maslach Burnout Inventory, said Dr. Burke. A recent survey that used this measure indicated that nearly half of physician respondents report experiencing burnout.

In 2017, Dr. Burke led a survey of American College of Gastroenterology members that showed 49.3% of respondents reported feeling emotional exhaustion and/or depersonalization. Some key themes emerged from the survey, she said. Women and younger physicians were more likely to experience burnout. Having children in the middle years (11-15 years old) and spending more time on domestic duties and child care increased the risk of burnout.

And doing patient-related work at home or having a spouse or partner bring work home also upped burnout risk. Skipping breakfast and lunch during the workweek was another risk factor, which highlights the importance of basic self-care as armor against the administrative onslaught, said Dr. Burke.

Measured by volume alone, physician work can be overwhelming: 45% of physicians in the United States work more than 60 hours weekly, compared with fewer than 10% of the general workforce, said Dr. Burke.

What factors within the control of an individual practitioner can reduce the risk of debilitating burnout and improve quality of life? Physicians who do report a high quality of life, said Dr. Burke, are more likely to have a positive outlook. They also practice basic self-care like taking vacations, exercising regularly, and engaging in hobbies outside of work.

For exhausted, overworked clinicians, getting a good night’s sleep is a critical form of self-care. But erratic schedules, stress, and family demands can all sabotage plans for better sleep hygiene. Still, attending to sleep is important, said Dr. Burke. Individuals with disturbed sleep are less mindful and have less self-compassion. Sleep disturbance is also strongly correlated with perceived stress.

She also reported that the odds ratio for burnout was 14.7 for physicians who reported insomnia when compared with those without sleep disturbance, and it was 9.9 for those who reported nonrestorative sleep.

Physical activity can help sleep and also help other markers of burnout. Dr. Burke pointed to a recent study of 4,402 medical students. Participants were able to reduce burnout risk when they met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations of achieving at least 150 minutes/week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes/week of vigorous exercise, plus at least 2 days/week of strength training (P less than .001; Acad Med. 2017;92:1006).

These physician-targeted programs can work, she said: “Faciliated interventions improve well-being, attitudes associated with patient-centered care, meaning and engagement in work, and reduce burnout.”

Practice-focused interventions to reclaim a semblance of control over one’s time are varied, and some are easier to implement than others. Virtual visits and group visits are surprisingly well received by patients, and each can be huge time-savers for physicians, said Dr. Burke. There are billing and workflow pitfalls to avoid, but group visits, in particular, can be practice changing for those who have heavy backlogs and see many patients with the same condition.

Medical scribes can improve productivity and reduce physician time spent on documentation. Also, said Dr. Burke, visits can appropriately be billed at a higher level of complexity when contemporaneous documentation is thorough. Clinicians overall feel that they can engage more fully with patients, and also feel more effective, when well-trained scribes are integrated into a practice, she said.

Female physicians have repeatedly been shown to have patient panels that are more demanding, and male and female patients alike expect more empathy and social support from their physicians, said Dr. Burke. When psychosocial complexities are interwoven with patient care, as they are more frequently for female providers, a 15-minute visit can easily run twice that – or more. Dr. Burke is among the physicians advocating for recognition of this invisible burden on female clinicians, either through adaptive scheduling or differential productivity expectations. This approach is not without controversy, she acknowledged; still, practices should acknowledge that clinic flow can be very different for male and female gastroenterologists, she said.

Dr. Burke reported no relevant conflicts of interest.

Read tips for how to balance family and personal lives with a professional career in order to avoid burnout at

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