AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Patients at risk as "burnout" among physicians increases

Doctors across the country are facing high rates of stress and burnout -- a dangerous trend for doctors and patients that is now a hot topic in the medical profession.

"Four hundred U.S. physicians take their own lives every year," Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, president and CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards, told an audience Thursday at the federation's annual meeting.

Those deaths represent just the most serious outcome of burnout. The rate of burnout among practicing physicians is on the rise and is even more prevalent among young doctors than more senior practitioners, according to research presented at the meeting.

"If doctors are stressed, how in the world can quality health care be delivered to patients?" Chaudhry said, during the convention's opening session.

The Federation of State Medical Boards, which is in Ft. Worth, Texas this week for its 105th annual meeting, represents the medical and osteopathic regulatory boards that license and discipline physicians in every state.

Finding ways to combat the stress and burnout among physicians has become one of the federation's top priorities. The group wants to better  understand the root causes of burnout and develop ways for medical regulators to help combat the issue.

"What is happening?" Chaundhry said to an audience that included hundreds of physicians and public members who serve on medical boards across the nation. "Is it related to over-regulation? It is related to just the complexities of the practice of medicine? Electronic health records? The reporting that you have to do as physicians? There could be a number of issues, but it’s important for us to figure out."

The consequences for patients when they are seen by a doctor experiencing burnout can range from medical errors and high mortality rates of hospitalized patients, to lower medical knowledge. Alcohol and drug abuse, as well as "impaired professionalism" are other consequence of burnout that can endanger patients, according to research presented as Thursday's session.

Research presented during the session found that students entering medical school tend to have better mental health than other college graduates, said Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, who studies physician well-being at the Mayo Clinic.

"It doesn’t take long for this to change," Dyrbye told those attending the federation meeting. Soon after entering medical school, the students tend to have more issues with burnout and depression than their peers.

The problem is growing and widespread among all doctors who are practicing, Dyrbye said, with more than 50 percent of doctors now dealing with burnout.

Dr. Arthur Hengerer, the chairman of the federation's board of directors, told the audience that he had developed a personal interest in addressing the issue and is not helping to lead the federation's work on this topic. He said he had the difficult experience of knowing five physicians very well who ended their lives by suicide.

Hengerer said he also saw the results of unaddressed burnout through serving on New York's Board of Professional Medical Conduct, which disciplines doctors whose addictions and behavioral issues had made it inappropriate for them to practice medicine.

Hengerer said the federation would be working with other organizations to address the issue.

The 2017 meeting of the Federation of State Medical Boards will continue through Sunday. Board members and staff from across the country will discuss a host of issues confronting medical licensing boards. The topics on the agenda include everything from the opioid epidemic and changes in national health policy, to tele-medicine and the international mobility of physicians.

The Atlanta Journal's Constitution national investigation, Doctors & Sex Abuse, was featured in a panel discussion at the meeting this week. Administrators in Medicine, the association of medical and osteopathic board executives, included the AJC's work in a panel that contemplated whether licensing boards across the country are meeting the public's expectations.

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About the Author

Carrie Teegardin is on the investigative team. She is a graduate of Duke University and has won numerous national journalism awards.