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Physicians experiencing burnout at unprecedented levels

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The pandemic may have wreaked havoc on patient mental health as a catalyst for burnout, but physicians and healthcare workers aren’t immune. 

Burnout affects physician well being, job satisfaction and patient outcomes. It has always been a major challenge for physicians, but now that the phenomenon has been thrust into the spotlight, there’s hope that institutions can support their staff, said Dr Alain Sabri, chairman and residency director of Otolaryngology at Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City. 

Speaking at the ENT Conference at Arab Health, Dr Sabri explained the causes and impact of burnout on not just individual physicians but the institutions they work for and the communities they serve. 

Burnout affects millions of people today as Covid-19 continues to take a toll on the general public. However, physicians are arguably impacted more acutely, said Dr Sabri. 

The issue is that people don’t recognise burnout and when it happens, they don’t address it. The term is so commonly used that Dr Sabri believes it is underestimated when it does happen. “Burnout isn’t having a bad day at work, not liking your boss, or being frustrated if things don’t go according to plan,” he said. While burnout may be newly recognised, it’s a hot topic in all professions.”

Burnout is a syndrome characterised by physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, reduced effectiveness, depersonalisation, and a diminished sense of purpose and personal accomplishment. It is more pronounced in healthcare; 50% of physicians have experienced burnout, and for certain specialisations, it is as high as 70%.

“MDs are 15 times more likely to experience burnout. 45% of doctors report that they would quit if they could afford to,” Dr Sabri said. Why? The long hours and purpose-led nature of the profession could be a reason. 

Physicians have a 20% higher divorce rate than the global average, and Dr Sabri’s research reveals that suicidal ideation, substance abuse and psychological problems abound for health workers facing burnout.

“While I hate to put a cost on something so tragic and important, it is very costly for institutions, communities and governments,” Dr Sabri said. Burnout ultimately leads to increased staff turnover, and physicians are particularly expensive and hard to replace. 

Physician burnout costs the US healthcare system $3.4 billion annually. Within the Department of Medicine at Mayo Clinic alone, where Dr Sabri used to work, it is estimated to cost at least $1.5 to $2.5 million a year in decreased productivity.

“The problem is multifactorial, but truthfully, we are very hard on ourselves and our colleagues,” he added. “There’s a terrible adage in medicine, ‘heal thyself’, but we’re not very good patients. We don’t know when to stop and when to take care of ourselves.”

Dr Sabri concluded with some key advice: “burnout is contagious so surround yourself with positive, supportive people. As physicians we need to reinvent ourselves personally and professionally and sometimes that starts with learning how to say no to demands beyond our capacity.”

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