Physician burnout spiked during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic after a six-year decline that ended in 2020, according to a new study published in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
“While we hope the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic are behind us, there is an urgent need to serve the doctors who put their all into our nation’s response to COVID-19, too often at the expense of their own wellness,” American Medical Association President Dr. Jack Resneck Jr. said in a news release.
Dr. Tait Shanafelt, a professor of medicine and director of wellness at Stanford Medicine in California, has been leading a study examining wellness among physicians and workers in all other fields in the US at three-year intervals, at as of 2011.
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The next one is scheduled for fall 2023.
But the study added an additional electronic survey that only included doctors from late 2021 to early 2022, about 21 months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID worsened medical exhaustion
The studies found that the overall prevalence of burnout among US physicians was 62.8% in 2021, compared to 38.2% in 2020, 43.9% in 2017, 54.4% in 2014, and 45.5% in 2011, according to the AMA press release.
“The marked increase in physician burnout over the past 12 months is alarming and has critical repercussions for the adequacy of the medical workforce, access to care and quality of care,” Shanafelt told Fox News Digital.
“Burnout among US physicians is now at the highest level on record, with female physicians and those practicing emergency medicine, general pediatrics and family medicine being particularly affected.”
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Shanafelt is the first designated director of wellness at a US academic medical center, according to the AMA.
An estimated 50 organizations have followed his appointment to create similar roles in the past five years, the AMA said.
Doctor burnout is not new
The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) declared physician burnout a national crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic and released a report in 2019 on ways to combat it.
NAM reported that up to 54% of nurses and doctors, and up to 60% of medical students and residents, experienced burnout.
But now the organization is calling a “code red.”
“The past two years of heightened stressors that COVID-19 has placed on our health care system have put physicians in the spotlight,” the academy said on its website.
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The Surgeon General sounded the alarm
Earlier this year, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm over what he called a national health care burnout crisis that is exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The health of the nation depends on the well-being of our health workforce,” Murthy said in a statement.
“COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for healthcare workers and their families, pushing them past their breaking point.”
More than half of public health workers reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition, including anxiety, depression and increased levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), due to the pandemic, according to the surgeon general’s advisory.
But the depletion of health care is also having a ripple effect on the nation’s public health infrastructure.
Health worker shortage expected
Within the next five years, many project a national shortage of more than three million low-wage health care workers, according to the advisory.
And the Association of American Medical Colleges projects that the demand for doctors will outstrip supply, projecting a shortage of as many as 139,000 doctors by 2033.
“The highest rate of suicide is among physicians, so recognizing early signs of physician burnout and providing resources to alleviate physician fatigue is critical.”
However, one study estimates that one in five physicians plan to leave their current practice within two years, according to the AMA.
Urgent call to action
“There is strong evidence that interventions by organizations and the health care system to decrease the administrative burden and improve the practice environment can reduce burnout,” Shanafelt told Fox News Digital.
“It is time to act”.
Shanafelt advocates in a recent article for a “wellness 2.0 phase” that replaces the sometimes divisive relationship between physicians and administrators “with a physician-administrator partnership mentality to create practical and sustainable solutions.”
“Physicians are accepted to be subject to the same human limitations that affect all human beings, with attention to adequate staffing, breaks, and rest as part of performance.”
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The AMA outlines five goals for improving physician wellness in the AMA Recovery Plan for American Physicians, which was released in June to address the needs of physicians.
Includes supporting telehealth, reforming Medicare payment, opposing “inappropriate scope expansions” by non-physicians, lowering prior authorization burdens, and reducing physician burnout and stigma around health problems mental.
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Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a medical contributor to Fox News and an emergency and family medicine physician, also weighed in on the matter.
“The highest rate of suicide is among physicians, so recognizing the early signs of physician burnout and providing resources to alleviate physician fatigue is critical in all aspects of medicine for the best outcomes for patients and, ultimately, for the general health and well-being of a physician. ” she said.