Home Health Glenn Ellis Ellis: Physician Burnout Has Become a Real Issue

Ellis: Physician Burnout Has Become a Real Issue

By Glenn Ellis

Can you imagine what it’s like to have a job where you go to work every day, and be surrounded by people who are in pain, suffering, or have some type of a health problem?

Well if the answer is no, then you’re not a doctor or nurse. Ever wonder what it’s like to spend the day seeing patient after patient; all showing up with health issues? What must it be like for a doctor or nurse who has a patient with diabetes and/or high blood pressure, and they don’t get better? Each of this type of patient shows up for their appointment, and look for the “miracle” from you; a new prescription dosage? A new drug? Or maybe to even be told they have been cured?

Think about what it must be like to be overwhelmed with the extent of illnesses, of too many conversations about death, depression, addiction, and even having to hear about suicidal thoughts from hopelessness on a daily basis.

We all expect to take our complaints about aches and pains to the doctor, and expect them to make it all better, or to give us a sense of hope that whatever ails us is not that serious.

Did you ever consider that your doctor (or nurse) is sick and tired of you being sick and tired? After all, they’re only human, like you.

The American Medical Association conducted its own survey and found overall physician burnout rate of 44 percent, with 15 percent saying they experienced colloquial or clinical forms of depression. Other studies have shown that 92 percent of physicians said they had experienced burnout at some point during their career, and 68 percent said they felt burned out right now. As patients, we want what we want, and we want it every time we have an encounter with the doctor (or nurse). But what’s it like to be on the other side?

Little thought is given by most of us about what it must be like to have to take care of sick people, whether they know they are sick. The truth of the matter is that the folks who take care of us and our health need some TLC themselves.

Prevalent In Medical School

In recent years, we are hearing more and more about the notion of physician burnout. A survey by Medscape revealed that only 3.6 percent of all doctors identify as black/African American. Research on this topic reveals that burnout is even prevalent during medical school, with many major U.S. multi‐institutional studies estimating that at least half of all medical students may be affected by burnout during their medical education. These same studies show that burnout may persist beyond medical school, and is, at times, associated with psychiatric disorders and even suicidal thoughts.

The inspiration for this column came from a conversation with a friend, who shared that they were disappointed by the manner in which the doctor let them know that they would have to start taking prescription medicine. My friend felt that the doctor was cold and indifferent about such a major issue for, like taking prescription medicine; possibly every day for the rest of their life.

Not wanting to be dismissive of my friend’s feelings, I pointed out, that I not only knew the doctor, personally, but held him in the highest regard. I asked my friend, “Do you ever think about what it’s like to be the ‘doctor’, day in, day out”?

In this case, the doctor is a cardiologist, who happens to be African American. I can’t ever fathom what it must be like for a cardiologist, whose patient base is probably 98 percent blacks, who overwhelmingly have heart failure; heart disease; diabetes; high blood pressure; or some combination of them all. In other words, patients who belong to a demographic with the worse outcomes and complications. That’s got to be depressing, to say the least! No such thing as going to work, and having a day filled with “good news.”

Sadly, we live in a society that not only creates well-trained doctors and nurses, it also makes them think they are “god-like.”

Now physician burnout in this country has become a real issue, but most of us as patients don’t realize it.


All across America, hospitals and medical schools are instituting trainings and interventions to address this problem. Some have even formed “burnout committees.” But the system has done such a good job of developing healthcare providers who think they are “superheroes,” that undoing this mess is not so simple. Many doctors remain reluctant to seek professional treatment for their symptoms of burnout or mental health conditions. Overall, about 40 percent of physicians are hesitant, or ashamed, to seek formal medical care for treatment of a mental health condition. They have been conditioned to think it would mean that somehow, they have failed.

In today’s medical landscape, we are receiving our healthcare from people who work in a system that is wrought with paperwork; electronic medical records; insurance authorizations; reimbursement rates; patient quotas; and a continuous sea of chronically ill patients.

The health of ourselves, and our families, demands that we ensure that we respect all of the providers of our healthcare, and having access to caring, competent doctors and nurses.

From now on, let’s all keep in mind that the stress of going to the doctor goes both ways: being the doctor or nurse is stressful as well, and takes its toll.

Just because you’re the patient, doesn’t mean you can’t be kind.

Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good information, visit: www.glennellis.com.