Leading health care organizations declare physician burnout as ‘public health crisis’

Sad doctor standing in corridor

For immediate release: January 17, 2019

Boston, MA – Burnout among the nation’s physicians has become so pervasive that a new paper published today by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association (MHA) has deemed the condition a public health crisis.

The paper includes directives aimed toward curbing the prevalence of burnout among physicians and other care providers, including the appointment of an executive-level chief wellness officer at every major health care organization, proactive mental health treatment and support for caregivers experiencing burnout, and improvements to the efficiency of electronic health records.

Read the full report. 

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78 percent of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout. Burnout is a syndrome involving one or more of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession.

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician wellbeing is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients,” said co-author Alain Chaoui, a practicing family physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “We need our health care institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level, and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

“The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” said co-author Ashish Jha, a Veterans Administration physician and professor at Harvard Chan School. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.”

“Massachusetts hospitals place a high and unwavering priority on the safety and wellbeing of patients and everyone who works in or visits their facilities,” said co-author Steven Defossez, MHA’s Vice President for Clinical Integration, a practicing radiologist. “In particular, we recognize the need to further empower health care providers and support their emotional, physical, social, and intellectual health. This report and its recommendations offer an important advance toward ensuring that physicians are able to bring their best selves to their lifesaving work. We see it as a component of our broader efforts to improve the health care workplace for every single employee, from nurses and direct care workers to lab technicians and administrative personnel.”

By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout. Further complicating matters is the cost an employer must incur to recruit and replace a physician, estimated at between $500,000 and $1,000,000.

The paper’s authors include Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and K.T. Li professor of global health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Alain A. Chaoui, MD, FAAFP, president, Massachusetts Medical Society; Andrew R. Iliff, MA, JD, program manager, Harvard Global Health Institute; Steven Defossez, MD, EMHL, vice president, clinical integration, Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association; Maryanne C. Bombaugh, MD, MSc, MBA, president-elect, Massachusetts Medical Society; and Yael R. Miller, MBA, director of practice solutions and medical economics, Massachusetts Medical Society.

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photo: iStock

Visit the Harvard Chan School website for the latest newspress releases, and multimedia offerings.

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Todd Datz