COVID-19 had a ‘profound’ effect as physician burnout increased in 2021


Family physicians were among those most at risk of increased pandemic burnout.

Family physicians were among those at the highest risk of burnout in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic took a “profound” toll on the country’s medical workforce.

The findings were part of “Changes in Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Integration in Physicians Over he First 2 Years of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a new study published by Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The researchers surveyed 2,440 doctors in 24 specialties from December 2021 to January 2022 and found that 62.8% of doctors had at least one manifestation of burnout in 2021, compared to 38.2% in 2020, 43.9% in 2017, 54.4% in 2014 and 45.5% in 2011, previous similar survey years.

“The collective effect on the American medical workforce appears to be profound,” the study states. “Given the association of physician burnout with quality of care, medical errors, reductions in clinical work effort, turnover, leaving practice, and health care costs, These findings also have potentially critical implications for the US health care delivery system.”

The results are another measure of how COVID-19, its accompanying societal and economic effects and other factors, have left many physicians physically, mentally and emotionally drained. Just this month Medical economics and The Physicians Foundation have released the results of separate surveys that indicate levels of burnout among physicians.

The results are in

The large increase in distress appears mainly related to occupational distress, as depression levels increased “6.1% more modestly”, according to the study.

Among the main results:

  • 30.3% said they agreed or strongly agreed that their work schedule allowed them enough time for their personal and family life. This figure was down from 46.1% in 2020, 42.8% in 2017, 40.9% in 2014 and 48.5% in 2011.
  • Emotional exhaustion scores were 38.6% higher than 2020 results.
  • Depersonalization scores were 60.7% higher than 2020 results.

The collective results are striking, but the numbers for some subgroups and specialties “are even more alarming,” according to the study. The survey confirms previous findings of an increased risk of burnout and work-life conflict among female physicians.

Physicians practicing emergency medicine, family medicine, and general pediatrics “had an increased risk of burnout after adjusting for other personal and professional characteristics,” according to the study.

Possible solutions

Over the past two years, high profile reports and legislation have documented the effects of physician burnout and outlined plans that could help. These include the National Academy of Medicine report “Tackling Clinician Burnout: A Systems Approach” and an accompanying action plan; federal funding to address health worker burnout; the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act; and the opinion of the United States Surgeon General, “Addressing Health Worker Burnout”.

The authors called on healthcare organizations to take an expansive and holistic approach to integrating large-scale changes in healthcare delivery, not just resiliency training or additional resources to help workers in distress. .

Things got better, then got worse?

From 2017 to 2020, there were a number of explanations for the improved burnout and work-life integration scores. For example, many parts of the country had not yet experienced COVID-19, and the pandemic has triggered the use of virtual care, less documentation and better team-based care – all potentially positive changes in the health care delivery.

“One more year into the pandemic, the results are starkly different,” with doctors worn down by staffing shortages, anti-science and incivility attitudes, and new dimensions of moral distress. Outside of medicine, doctors, healthcare workers, and people in general faced school and child care issues, social justice unrest, gun violence, invasion Ukraine, inflation and economic problems, according to the study.


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