COVID-19 drives physician burnout for some specialties


Physician burnout remains at a critical level, at 42% overall – the same percentage as last year – but COVID-19 has changed the specialties hit hardest, according to Medscape’s Death by 1,000 Cuts: Physician Burnout & Suicide Report.

Critical care physicians now top the list of those experiencing burnout, at 51%, up from 44% last year, followed by rheumatologists (50%, up from 46%) and infectious disease specialists (49%, up from 45%). Forty-nine percent of urologists reported burnout, but that was a reduction from 54% last year.

Last year, the specialties burdened most by burnout were urology, neurology, nephrology, endocrinology, and family medicine.

Women hit particularly hard

Women in medicine traditionally have experienced higher levels of burnout than men, and the pandemic seems to have widened that gap, with the divide now at 51% for women and 36% for men.

“Many women physicians are in families with children at home,” said Carol Bernstein, MD, psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, New York. “It’s already known that women assume more responsibilities in the home than do men. The pressures have increased during COVID-19 – having to be their child’s teacher during home schooling, no child care, and the grandparents can’t babysit. In addition, all doctors and nurses are worried about bringing the virus home to their families.”

Data were collected from Aug. 30 through Nov. 5, 2020. More than 12,000 physicians from 29 specialties responded.

For many, (79%) burnout has been building over years, but for some (21%), it started with the pandemic. Factors cited include lack of adequate personal protective equipment, grief from losing patients, watching families suffer, long hours, and difficult working conditions.

More than 70% of those who responded feel that burnout has had at least a moderate impact on their lives.

“One-tenth consider it severe enough to consider leaving medicine,” survey authors wrote, “an unexpected outcome after having spent so many years in training to become a physician.”

Tragically, an estimated 300 physicians each year in the United States are consumed by the struggle and take their own lives.

One percent have attempted suicide

In this survey, 13% of physicians had thoughts of suicide, and 1% have attempted it; 81% said they had no thoughts of suicide; and 5% preferred not to answer.

By specialty, obstetricians/gynecologists were most likely to have thoughts of suicide (19%), followed by orthopedists (18%) and otolaryngologists and plastic surgeons (17%).

“I yell all the time, I am angry and frustrated all the time. I think about quitting all the time,” said an internist who admitted having suicidal thoughts. “No one in my organization cares about doing the right things for patients as much as I do.”

Yet, many with such thoughts tell no one. By age group, 32% of millennials, 40% of generation X physicians, and 41% of baby boomer physicians who had had thoughts of suicide said they had told no one about those thoughts.

Fear of being reported to the medical board, fear of colleagues finding out, and other factors perpetuate a cycle of burnout and depression, and most don’t seek help.

Top reasons physicians listed for not seeking help for burnout and depression include “symptoms are not severe enough” (52%); “I can deal with without help from a professional” (46%); and feeling “too busy” (40%).


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