US health care system causing widespread burnout among doctors, nurses, report finds

The American health care system is so broken that it’s causing a growing epidemic of burnout among doctors and nurses.

That’s according to a new 312-page report published by the National Academy of Medicine, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that found that up to half of all clinicians have reported “substantial” feelings of burnout, including exhaustion, high depersonalization and a low sense of personal accomplishment.

Physician burnout can result in increased risk to patients, malpractice claims, clinician absenteeism, high employee turnover and overall reduced productivity. In addition to posing a threat to the safety of patients and physicians, burnout carries a hefty economic cost: A previous study published in June by the Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that physician burnout costs the U.S. economy roughly $4.6 billion per year, or $7,600 per physician per year.

“There is a serious problem of burnout among health care professionals in this country, with consequences for both clinicians and patients, health care organizations and society,” the report said.

The authors of the report, who spent 18 months studying research on burnout, found that between 35 and 54 percent of nurses and doctors experience burnout. Among medical students and residents, the percentage is as high as 60 percent.

Physicians suffering from burnout are at least twice as likely to report that they’ve made a major medical error in the last three months, compared to their colleagues, and they’re also more likely to be involved in a malpractice litigation suit, the report found. Each year, about 2,400 physicians leave the workforce -- and the No. 1 factor is burnout.

The issue has also been linked to higher rates of alcohol abuse and risk of suicide.

Health care employees are so prone to burnout because of frequent changes to the system, which have exacerbated external pressures among physicians, including excessive workloads, long hours, frequent call duties, time spent at home on work-related factors, malpractice suits and methods that physicians use to deal with patient death and illnesses.

For instance, a law about patient privacy resulted in added frustration on doctors by ending their session every few minutes, requiring them to repeatedly log in throughout the day, The Washington Post reported.

The report outlined a number of changes needed to solve the problem, including:

  • Health care organizations should create positive work environments to foster professional well-being, including creating an executive-level wellness officer to monitor and protect clinicians’ health
  • Medical schools need to better train students on how to prevent and reduce burnout 
  • Research burnout in order to better understand how to prevent it and help clinicians to recover, if they’ve been affected