Long before the COVID pandemic, doctors across the world were suffering from ‘a pandemic of physician burnout’, according to former World Medical Association President, Dr Leonid Eidelman. This global physician burnout pandemic needs to be addressed. Stat!
In this article, we explore burnout statistics and causes from around the world.
Increasingly, physician burnout has been recognised as a public health crisis in many countries because it not only affects physicians’ personal lives and work satisfaction but also creates severe pressure on the whole health-care system—particularly threatening patients’ care and safety.
Physician burnout is linked to:
Moreover, Dr Eidelman rightly asserts that ‘Physician burnout is a symptom of a larger problem – a healthcare system that increasingly overworks doctors and undervalues their health needs’.
The former WMA President stated that nearly half of the world’s 10 million physicians had symptoms of burnout. These symptoms include emotional exhaustion, interpersonal disengagement, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.
Below, we gather the findings into doctor burnout from several countries, and then focus on a pre-pandemic 6-country report into physician burnout.
Medscape’s 2019 Global Physicians’ Burnout and Lifestyle Comparisons Report included responses from nearly 20,000 doctors in six countries (France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom).
While this report was pre-pandemic, it gives us a good starting point.
The French and UK doctor communities appeared to feel the effects of burnout most acutely, with a quarter (23-25%, respectively) saying the impact was so severe they were thinking of abandoning medicine altogether. The US, Germany and Portugal fared slightly better, yet one in five doctors in these countries were considering leaving medicine.
Spanish doctors indicated the lowest impact, with one in four (27%) saying that burnout did not interfere with their lives and only 9% saying they were considering leaving the profession.
Most physicians reported that unhappiness with work was the key factor for their burnout and depression. Common themes driving burnout were:
The majority of doctors said they had not sought professional help for burnout and/or depression (58%), with reasons given:
So nearly 60% of burned out/depressed colleagues think that they can manage the situation themselves. (Disclosure: I was one of those!)
Reality check: if they had the tools to do so, they would not be burned out or depressed.
[This links to the Dr Superman Fallacy, soon to be featured in another blog.]
The differences above are likely to reflect the predominant local health system challenges. The US scored highest in the need for reduced work hours, greater respect from administrators etc, and more reasonable patient loads.
While the US scored highest, each country surveyed has physicians asking for more manageable workloads, greater respect, greater patient focus rather than profits, and better financial compensation to avoid financial stress.
Similarly, doctors across all 6 countries wanted more schedule flexibility, greater respect from patients, and increased control. Nearly twice as many doctors in the UK and US felt increased autonomy would reduce their burnout, compared to the sampled European countries. Portugal and Spain were outliers in their doctors’ desire for more educational and professional growth opportunities to alleviate burnout.
Physician burnout is a global problem, indeed it was a pandemic before the COVID pandemic.
Burnout is caused by unmanageable stress, which is a systemic problem, because physicians do not lack resilience.
Solving the complex, entrenched, and multiplex systemic contributors to physician burnout will take a concerted interdisciplinary approach. And it will take time.
In the meanwhile, doctors are suffering, and in some cases, dying.
One evidence-based solution is for doctors to be able to access safe, confidential, and anonymous peer-support and group coaching online from anywhere in the world.
That is our vision at Physicians Anonymous.
If you would like to help us, please Contact Us with your ideas. If you would like to find out more, please Join Us.