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When the Physician Becomes the Patient: Diagnosing and Treating Physician Burnout

By Diane Doherty, MS, CPHRM
Senior Vice President, Healthcare Risk Management


For the third year in a row, the Association of American Medical Colleges anticipates that physician demand will continue to grow faster than supply, leading to a projected shortfall of up to 104,900 physicians by 2030.

Such a shortfall in and of itself is a challenge. Compounding the issue is that close to one-third of current actively-licensed U.S. physicians are 60 or older, according to the Journal of Medical Regulation. Having spent years working long hours in high-stress situations, constant time pressures, increased performance measures (cost, patient experience and quality) and of course the adoption of EHRs, many are subsequently “burning out” at rapid rates.

Physician burnout is a serious problem and if not addressed, can lead to many patient safety issues including costly medical errors. With patient safety at risk, it is therefore critical that signs of physician burnout are proactively addressed and managed by hospital leaders and executives.

Know the Signs

It is easy to miss the symptoms associated with physician burnout or mistake them for just a bad day at the office. However, there are certain warning signs leadership and front line staff should watch for according to the AMA. Warning signs include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism about the job
  • Chaotic work environment
  • Burdened by EHR clerical tasks
  • Detached from patients
  • A loss of perspective or self-efficacy, including the inability to see the impact of their work

By understanding the warning signs, hospitals can take the important first step to addressing and reducing burnout amongst their staff.

Understand the Impact

As mentioned, physician burnout can impact patient safety and also put a strain on the health system. Physicians who are overleveraged, for example, have a greater likelihood of missing or delaying a diagnosis, which can result in a multi-million dollar malpractice-related settlement. Additionally, older physicians who express doubt about the benefits of new technologies or medical techniques also increase the chance of poor patient outcomes.

But the risk extends beyond patient safety to include corporate liability, particularly if it can be shown that a hospital engaged in negligent retention, credentialing or re-credentialing practices. Similar to malpractice settlements, hospitals could face steep financial penalties and fines if such practices are proven true.

Engage the Workforce

When looking to address physician burnout issues, the first step involves assessing the problem and developing detailed strategies and plans for physician burnout prevention and safe delivery of care. To develop a comprehensive response plan to burnout, organizations should have a comprehensive plan that examines the issue at the following levels; an individual physician, departmental, leadership, and organizational wide. Organizations should then address the unique challenges in each of those areas. The AMA is a great resource that offers several systems-based approaches to reducing burnout. While we know that there is no quick fix for physician burnout, it is critical that organizations identify the issues early on and have a program in place to enhance physician satisfaction and ward off burnout.

For more information about addressing physician burnout, visit