Physicians are reporting feelings of burnout at high levels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey from the not-for-profit Physicians Foundation.
The survey, which involves responses gathered last month from more than 2,300 U.S. doctors, shows 58% of physicians report often feeling burned out, representing a 45% increase from two years ago when 40% reported often or always feeling burned out in another Physicians Foundation survey. The survey results were gathered in late-August and most questions were specific to physicians' emotional well-being in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the survey represents a small percentage of physicians in the U.S., it's aligned with concerns from mental health professionals since the onset of the pandemic that frontline clinicians are being drained emotionally, physically or financially. Before the pandemic, there were signs of progress in addressing burnout, with research from Stanford Medicine indicating that burnout rates were actually declining among physicians.
Since the pandemic, "taking care of patients has become much more difficult," said Dr. Gary Price, president of the Physicians Foundation. Physicians in coronavirus hot spots report exhaustion or feelings of inadequacy while some with private practices have been forced to close or furlough staff due to losses in revenue.
Nearly 50% of survey respondents are employed by hospitals or hospital-owned medical groups and 40% said those employers have been helpful to their well-being during this time. The vast majority of physicians — 90% — said family members are their best source of support.
Many hospitals and health systems have begun to offer comprehensive mental health and well-being services for their clinical staff in response to COVID-19, Price said, but it's also important family members are aware of the signs of burnout so they can help their loved ones recognize and address it. Physicians Foundation launched a campaign targeted at raising awareness among physicians and their family about how to recognize signs of burnout and distress.
The survey also found 38% of physicians want to retire in the next year; 21% of the respondents 45 or younger responded this way. This is higher than the 2018 survey from Physicians Foundation when 17% said they plan to retire in the next one to three years. Price said this is alarming given the fact that the average age of the physician workforce is over 50 and a physician shortage is predicted in the years ahead.
"If the pandemic accelerated what already is a looming problem it would be disastrous as far as patients access to care," he said.