Physician Burnout: How Does It Affect Patient Care?

Even before the pandemic, physician fatigue or burnout has been a problem facing the healthcare system. Practicing medicine is such a demanding profession that many clinicians, especially those affiliated with different hospitals, are working long hours in highly challenging workplaces almost every day of the week. This kind of burnout becomes a vicious cycle as practitioners, who deal with longstanding stress, already neglect their personal lives and relationships. And, as problematic personal and toxic home life takes hold, doctors may experience undesirable consequences in their professional practice.

Indeed, physician burnout adversely affects a medical practice if ignored and left unchecked. But, other than doctors, it can also have an impact on patients. Here are the top way this problem could affect patient care:

  1. Poor Communication

Someone suffering from fatigue also exhibits mental health issues. One that could affect patient care is depersonalization. As a result of this detached attitude, which is a way of coping with extreme stress, doctors tend to deal with their patients not as persons, but as problems they need to resolve. Thus, practitioners may seem cold, detached, and mechanical in their approach.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the longstanding burnout problems involving the health sector. Having said that, providing mental health resources and support is one of the things that healthcare companies can do to help their workers during a health crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Disruptive Habits

Burned out physicians may exhibit cynicism, aggressiveness, and condescending attitude toward patients. Such behavior could impact their colleagues and coworkers, resulting in low morale and poor relationships. In the long run, disruptive habits could spark a toxic work environment that may affect patient care in clinics and hospital settings. Other healthcare workers might also doubt their abilities or lose enthusiasm in their jobs.

  1. Heightened Medical Errors

According to a BMJ report, medical error is the third foremost cause of death in the United States, just below cancer and heart problems. It seems that one of the underlying reasons affecting doctor performance is burnout. Practitioners under long-term stress and fatigue usually lack focus and are prone to misdiagnosis, poor judgment, and technical blunders.

As a remedy to this issue, many training hospitals in the U.S. have improved their doctor training and working schedules to provide ample time for rest and work-life balance. But, in areas with a shortage of doctors, many clinicians might continue to work long hours to accommodate patients.

  1. Limited Access To Care

Many doctors cut their work hours, discontinue some hospital affiliations, or even choose early retirement to deal with physician burnout. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Aside from burnout, the pandemic has also caused physical and financial strains, which has led many doctors to give up on their practice. Thus, there’s a palpable shortage of physicians, particularly in the primary care segment. As a result, patients might have a hard time finding new doctors.

  1. Poor Patient Satisfaction

One of the consequences of physician burnout is poor patient satisfaction. This outcome isn’t surprising because, as mentioned earlier, burnout causes medical errors, depersonalization, an unhealthy clinic environment, and poor communication. Some patients complain that burned out doctors seem to deal with them mechanically, and with no regard for their emotions and conditions. Because of the shoddy treatment and medical errors, some people mistrust the healthcare system and refrain from seeking doctor consultations. Unfortunately, such experience could tarnish the medical profession’s reputation and patients’ confidence in healthcare.

  1. Longer Duration Of Patient Recovery

Another critical consequence of physician burnout is the longer recovery time for patients. Aside from possible errors in managing the conditions and misjudgment of treatment directions, a strained doctor-patient relationship can also affect the recovery of people seeking medical attention.

If patients are unhappy or feel put down, they may not have confidence following their respective doctors’ orders, or they spend more time jumping from one practitioner to another to find the proper care they deserve. As a result of these care disruptions, patients could suffer from their conditions longer, and their recovery could get delayed.

Methods To Address Physician Burnout

  • Practice Self-Care

Many doctors prioritize their work and patients more than their personal lives and relationships. After practicing their profession for years, they end up suffering unknowingly from prolonged stress and fatigue. To prevent burnout, doctors should be mindful of their mental health and practice self-care. Some habits that can boost mental health include healthy eating, ample exercise, restful sleep, and an excellent work-life balance. Some clinicians could also benefit from practicing yoga, meditation, and even joining sports activities.

  • Establish Professional Boundaries

Due to technological advances, patients can now bombard doctors with texts, emails, or even video calls to demand answers to their questions and concerns. For the sake of their mental wellbeing, doctors may want to establish healthy but firm professional boundaries with their patients at the beginning of their professional relationship. Patients should recognize their doctors’ need for rest to be at their peak condition during work hours.

  • Participate In Peer And Support Groups

Time is a vital commodity for doctors, so some might feel that joining support and peer groups is a waste of precious time that they could otherwise use to help patients. But, peer counseling or enrolling in structured group activities to address burnout is necessary for mental health. Doctors are humans too, so they experience trauma, disappointments, and other negative emotions during their work.

Sharing these experiences and seeking counseling might improve how practitioners release tension and frustrations, as well as help them learn how to deal with difficult situations. Aside from doctors, maybe, core family members could also attend counseling or initiate peer groups to understand better the challenges physicians face every day.

  • Reduce Physician’s Administrative Burden

Many doctors complain that added administrative burden is also a leading cause of burnout. Thus, healthcare organizations and even legislators might want to consider enforcing healthcare regulations and practices that could help eliminate the additional administrative burden for practitioners.

  • Create Healthy Work Environments

There have been positive changes to healthcare work environments in the last few years. Regulations have been put in place to lower the working hours of residents and clerks mainly to address this burnout issue. However, it’s only a first step. There are, still, many things that healthcare organizations could do to make the work environment in hospitals, clinics, and laboratories more positive for all healthcare workers.

Summing Up

Physician burnout is already considered an epidemic even before the COVID-19 pandemic. People need to recognize the signs of physician burnout and address this problem at the onset because, ultimately, this mental health problem can harm patient care.