Burnout among U.S. doctors is becoming more common and now affects more than half of practicing physicians, according to a new study.
About 54 percent of U.S. doctors experienced at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, compared to about 46 percent of doctors in 2011, researchers report in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Overall, the researchers found that doctors are about twice as likely to experience burnout as the average U.S. worker.
"Things are unfortunately getting worse for physicians," said lead author Dr. Tait Shanafelt, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Through a partnership with the American Medical Association, the researchers invited nearly 36,000 U.S. doctors to take a survey in 2014 and compared the responses to a similar survey from 2011.
Of the 6,880 doctors who responded to the 2014 survey, about 47 percent reported high emotional exhaustion, about 35 percent felt depersonalized or saw less value in their work and about 16 percent felt a low level of personal accomplishment.
Burnout rates varied between specialties, with rates topping 60 percent among doctors in emergency medicine, family medicine, urology, rehabilitation and radiology.
Doctors working in urology, rehabilitation, family medicine, radiology, orthopedic surgery, dermatology, internal medicine, general surgery, pathology, psychiatry and general pediatrics all saw significant increases in burnout rates between 2011 and 2014.
Despite no increase in the number of hours worked, only 41 percent of all doctors said they were satisfied with the balance between their work and personal lives, down from about 49 percent in 2011.
In an editorial, Dan Ariely and Dr. William Lanier of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, pointed to three main psychological issues in the workplace that likely undermine doctors' wellbeing: loss of autonomy, mental exhaustion and "asymmetrical rewards" - meaning that success is barely acknowledged while mistakes come with heavy punishments.
Shanafelt also pointed to doctors' heavier workloads and increased clerical responsibilities as examples of potential frustrations.
The study team notes that 75 percent of doctors now work for large healthcare organizations, and meaningful progress toward turning around burnout rates will require work by doctors and their organizations.
Dr. Mark Linzer, of Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, said his research shows that healthcare systems with higher burnout rates also provide less quality care to their patients.
He told Reuters Health that patients can help address doctor burnout by encouraging healthcare systems to assess their work environments. This can include measuring time pressures, chaos, lack of control and alignment of values between doctors and leaders.
"If providers, patients and health systems can all come into agreement to address this, acknowledge it, measure it and care about it, I think we can pretty quickly turn things around," said Linzer, who was not involved with the new research.
Shanafelt said some systems have made initial progress by providing doctors with assistants and lightening the load of clerical tasks.
"I think we have some innovative centers at the vanguard, but I think the saturation of how that's being pursued is limited," he said.