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Physician burnout reaches new heights during COVID-19 pandemic

If there is one lesson to be taken from 2020, it’s that waiting until a problem evolves into a crisis is an exceedingly bad idea. While the world still deals with the effect of COVID-19, there are many other problems that require our attention now lest they spiral out of control—from climate change to mental health (see "The fight against anxiety, depression, and mental illness during COVID-19").

One problem that has been building up for a long time is burnout among healthcare workers. Medicine has always been a high-stress job, but burnout rates have climbed over the last few years. And Medscape’s new study “'Death by 1000 Cuts': Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021,” which measures burnout rates during the coronavirus pandemic, points to an issue that can no longer be ignored. The study asked 12,000 physicians about burnout, suicide, and stress between August 30 and November 5, 2020.

Some of the more alarming findings in Medscape’s study:

  • 89% of physicians report experiencing some form of depression.
  • 53% say their depression negatively impacts their interaction with patients. 
  • Of those who reported burnout, 47% said it’s had a severe impact on their life and 24% said it’s had a moderate impact.
  • 13% have had suicidal thoughts but not attempted it. 1% have attempted suicide.
  • Over two thirds of millennial, Gen X, and baby boomer physicians say their workplace burnout has had a negative effect on their home life.
  • 35% said they’ve done nothing at work to try and alleviate their burnout.
  • 79% said their burnout began before the pandemic.
  • Happiness among physicians has dropped from 69% to 49% since the start of the pandemic.

PSMJ spoke with Anne Marie Benedicto, vice president of the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare, about the Medscape study and healthcare burnout in general. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

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