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Physician Burnout Threatens the Medical Profession

Studies consistently show that more than half of American physicians are suffering symptoms of burnout.  Consider that astonishing statistic.  What if half the country or half of your own profession were suffering from a disease?  Wouldn’t you expect- or demand - that every available resource be devoted to crush it and rescue the afflicted?

Is the medical profession and society at large attacking the physician burnout plague?  Not as I see it.  Indeed, the statistics are all trending in the wrong direction. Physicians and their families, their employers, other medical professionals, the government, and the public are all aware of this epidemic.  I often read expressions of deep concern for doctors’ plight, but the concern is not a treatment. We know the various forces and pressures that are pushing doctors toward the precipice.  There’s no mystery here.  Yet, why won’t anyone pull these doctors back from the edge? What are we waiting for?  A burnout pandemic?

We have to put this fire out.

I have never personally suffered from burnout, despite more than 3 decades of hard labor in the profession.  I can’t explain this good fortune since I am exposed to all of the negative pressures and influences that all doctors and medical professionals confront.  I am grateful that I have been spared but I viscerally understand why so many of my medical colleagues are disconsolate and demoralized. Every one of us has a breaking point. 

As we doctors often profess, it’s much better to prevent a disease than to treat it.  Medical burnout was not inevitable.  And if we have the collective will, it can be dismantled over time, liberating doctors from its cruel grip.

It’s always easier to treat an illness when we understand the cause, such as esophageal reflux, hepatitis, or diabetes. Conversely, when the underlying cause is obscure, such as in rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue, or long Covid, finding effective treatments is more challenging.  When we know the cause, scientists have a target to aim at. Physician burnout has well-known and well-studied causes.

In a future post, I’ll detail the specific burdens that are weighing down today’s physicians.  My purpose is not simply to rant and gripe (although it can feel good to vent and decompress.)  We need to understand the causes if we are to have any hope of cooling off physician burnout.


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