January 26, 2021

These physicians are most burned-out amid the coronavirus epidemic, according to Medscape

Daily Briefing

    Rates of burnout among physicians in 2020 held steady when compared with 2019, with more than 40% of physicians saying they were burned out last year, according to Medscape's 2021 National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report. But as physicians grappled with America's coronavirus pandemic, physicians in some specialties reported feeling more burned out than others.

    For the report, Medscape surveyed more than 12,000 physicians from 29 specialties between August 30, 2020, and Nov. 5, 2020 on a variety of topics, including burnout, depression, suicidal thoughts, and the effects of America's coronavirus epidemic.

    Burnout and depression among physicians

    Of the physicians surveyed for this year's report, 42% said they were burned out. That’s the same percentage who reported feeling burned out in 2019, according to Medscape's 2020 National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report.

    However, while the overall reported rate of burnout remained the same from 2019 to 2020, reported burnout rates varied by gender and specialty, according to this year's report. For example, the burnout gender gap was greater than usual in this year's report, according to Medscape, with 51% of female respondents and 36% of male respondents saying they were burned out.

    Carol Bernstein, a psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, said the coronavirus epidemic could be to blame for the widened gap between genders.

    "Many women physicians are in families with children at home," Bernstein said. "It's already known that women assume more responsibilities in the home than do men. The pressures have increased during Covid-19—having to be their child's teacher during home schooling, no childcare, and the grandparents can't babysit. In addition, all doctors and nurses are worried about bringing the virus home to their families."

    Critical care physicians reported the highest rate of burnout among all specialties, at 51%, which is a notable increase from 2019, when the reported burnout rate among critical care physicians was 44%. Rheumatologists reported the second-highest rate of burnout in 2020, at 50%, up from about 46% in 2019, followed by infectious disease specialists, at 49%, up from 45% in 2019.

    In contrast, the reported burnout rate among urologists decreased from 2019 to 2020, dropping from 54% to 49%, according to Medscape.

    Medscape also found that reported levels of burnout varied based on where physicians practiced:

    Of the physicians surveyed, 79% said they started feeling burned out before America's coronavirus epidemic began, while 21% said they started feeling burned out after the epidemic began. When asked about the biggest contributors to their burnout, 58% of respondents said they had to deal with too many bureaucratic tasks—topping the list of factors contributing to physicians' burnout for the second year in a row. According to Medscape, just 8% of respondents named stress from caring for Covid-19 patients as the top contributor to their burnout.

    When asked what they do to cope with stress and burnout, 48% of physicians said they exercise—the most common answer, followed by talking with family and friends, at 43%, and self-isolation, also at 43%.

    According to Medscape, there were moderate increases in the percentages of physicians who reported drinking alcohol and overeating junk food to cope with stress and burnout, with 26% of respondents saying they drank alcohol to cope, up from 24% in 2019, and 35% saying they ate junk food to cope, up from 33% in 2019.

    More than 70% of the physicians surveyed said they felt burnout had at least a moderate impact on their lives. Meanwhile, 13% of physicians said they had thoughts of suicide in 2020, and 1% said they'd attempted suicide.

    However, many physicians who reported experiencing suicidal thoughts said they didn't talk about them, according to the report. The report showed that 32% of millennial respondents, 40% of Gen X respondents, and 41% of baby boomer respondents who reported having suicidal thoughts also said they didn't tell anyone about them.

    How to reduce burnout, according to physicians

    When asked what actions could be taken to reduce burnout, 45% of the respondents named "increased compensation to avoid financial stress," which topped the list of potential solutions. That was followed by the 42% of respondents who cited having "more manageable work and schedule" as a potential solution.

    (Frellick, Medscape, 1/25; Kane, "'Death by 1000 Cuts': Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021," 1/22).

    Measuring physician burnout

    3 questions to inform your strategy

    burnout graphic

    While the national physician burnout rate continues to rise, many physician executives want visibility into how physicians are faring at their organization. The challenge is that there’s no single “perfect” measure for physician burnout—and getting a meaningful response rate can be time and resource intensive.

    As you determine the right assessment strategy for your organization, use the three questions below to inform your approach.

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