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Are docs getting fed up with hearing about burnout?


There is a feeling of exhaustion, being unable to shake a lingering cold, suffering from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances, sleeplessness and shortness of breath ...

That was how burnout was described by clinical psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, PhD, who first used the phrase in a paper back in 1974, after observing the emotional depletion and accompanying psychosomatic symptoms among volunteer staff of a free clinic in New York City. He called it “burnout,” a term borrowed from the slang of substance abusers.

It has now been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that burnout is a serious issue facing physicians across specialties, albeit some more intensely than others. But with the constant barrage of stories published on an almost daily basis, along with studies and surveys, it begs the question: Are physicians getting tired of hearing about burnout? In other words, are they getting “burned out” about burnout?

Some have suggested that the focus should be more on tackling burnout and instituting viable solutions rather than rehashing the problem.

There haven’t been studies or surveys on this question, but several experts have offered their opinion.

Jonathan Fisher, MD, a cardiologist and organizational well-being and resiliency leader at Novant Health, Charlotte, N.C., cautioned that he hesitates to speak about what physicians in general believe. “We are a diverse group of nearly 1 million in the United States alone,” he said.

But he noted that there is a specific phenomenon among burned-out health care providers who are “burned out on burnout.”

“Essentially, the underlying thought is ‘talk is cheap and we want action,’” said Dr. Fisher, who is chair and co-founder of the Ending Physician Burnout Global Summit that was held in 2021. “This reaction is often a reflection of disheartened physicians’ sense of hopelessness and cynicism that systemic change to improve working conditions will happen in our lifetime.”

Dr. Fisher explained that “typically, anyone suffering – physicians or nonphysicians – cares more about ending the suffering as soon as possible than learning its causes, but to alleviate suffering at its core – including the emotional suffering of burnout – we must understand the many causes.”

“To address both the organizational and individual drivers of burnout requires a keen awareness of the thoughts, fears, and dreams of physicians, health care executives, and all other stakeholders in health care,” he added.

Burnout, of course, is a very real problem. The 2022 Medscape Physician Burnout & Depression Report found that nearly half of all respondents (47%) said they are burned out, which was higher than the prior year. Perhaps not surprisingly, burnout among emergency physicians took the biggest leap, jumping from 43% in 2021 to 60% this year. More than half of critical care physicians (56%) also reported that they were burned out.

The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) – the official compendium of diseases – has categorized burnout as a “syndrome” that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is considered to be an occupational phenomenon and is not classified as a medical condition.

But whether or not physicians are burned out on hearing about burnout remains unclear. “I am not sure if physicians are tired of hearing about ‘burnout,’ but I do think that they want to hear about solutions that go beyond just telling them to take better care of themselves,” said Anne Thorndike, MD, MPH, an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston. “There are major systematic factors that contribute to physicians burning out.”


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