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Clinician Burnout Reaches New High During COVID-19 After 6-Year Decline

New data suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased emotional exhaustion in physicians and exacerbated women's increased risk for clinician burnout.

The clinician burnout rate among US physicians spiked drastically during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic after six years of decline, according to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The research builds on studies conducted by researchers from the AMA, Mayo Clinic, and Stanford Medicine at regular intervals between 2011 and 2021.

Together, these studies revealed that clinician burnout was 62.8 percent in 2021 compared to 38.2 percent in 2020, 43.9 percent in 2017, 54.4 percent in 2014, and 45.5 percent in 2011.

Each study consistently found that the overall prevalence of burnout among physicians was higher relative to the US workforce.

The research also found that mean emotional exhaustion and depersonalization scores were higher in 2021 than in previous years. Mean emotional exhaustion scores increased 38.6 percent from 2020 to 2021, while depersonalization scores increased 60.7 percent. Average scores for depression also increased by 6.1 percent from 2020 to 2021.

While the burnout results for all clinicians are concerning, the survey findings for certain groups and specialties are even more alarming.

After adjusting for personal and professional characteristics, researchers found that women are over two times as likely to report clinician burnout than men. In 2020, women physicians were 1.27 times as likely to experience burnout.

"These data suggests the long-documented increased risk for burnout and work-life conflict in women physicians has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a finding consistent with other reports," the study authors wrote.

The report also found that physicians practicing emergency medicine, family medicine, and general pediatrics were at increased risk for burnout after adjusting for personal and professional characteristics.

The researchers noted that large-scale change is necessary to address rising rates of clinician burnout.

The 2019 NAM consensus report, Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout: A System Approach to Professional Well-being, outlines the holistic changes needed to address longstanding issues in the healthcare delivery system.

In June 2022, the NAM released a national plan to translate the report's recommendations into action.

In early 2022, the Surgeon General also released an advisory on Addressing Health Worker Burnout and called for action from federal, state, and local government, healthcare organizations, health insurers, technology vendors, training programs, and accrediting bodies.

Additionally, President Biden signed the Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act in March of 2022, which provides federal funding for mental health education to support healthcare workers' well-being.

"While encouraging signs, these initial actions are primarily focused on personal resilience rather than addressing the system issues specified in the NAM consensus report, and allocate only $20 per physician or nurse in the United States without even accounting for other healthcare workers," the study authors noted.

"Evidence indicates that a resilience deficit is not the issue driving healthcare worker burnout49 and new legislation and action aligned with the NAM recommendations and paired with more substantive funding will be needed to address the problem," they continued.

At the organizational level, the researchers suggested focusing on preventive measures for burnout.

"While sincere, many of these organizations have focused on providing resources for individuals in distress, such as psychological first aid, peer support, mental healthcare, and counseling," they wrote.

"These organizations will benefit from embracing a more expansive and holistic approach to prevent occupational distress rather than simply perpetually reacting to it by providing support to distressed clinicians," they added.

The researchers explained that preventative approaches to battling burnout require organizational commitment and dedicated leadership. Additionally, these efforts must include sustained strategies to reduce administrative burden, enhance team-based care, address inefficiencies, and establish staffing models based on new care delivery models.

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