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Physician Burnout & Career Fatigue

Medical boards and health systems are making systemic changes to humanize physicians and reduce longstanding stigmas around seeking mental health treatment
By Sun W. Vega, JD, MBA, Daniel BPlaney-Koen, JD, and Tyler Cowart, JD

Physician wellness and the stigma surrounding mental health are ever-rising concerns among healthcare leaders and proponents for improvement of the national healthcare system. Among the issues confronting the nation is the rapidly declining number of physicians and healthcare workers available to provide necessary services.

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the increasing number of physicians and allied health workers leaving their professions or retiring early due to burnout and untreated mental health concerns. Nationally, state medical boards, health systems, and healthcare institutions are moving to change stigmatizing questions on credentialing and privileging applications that may discourage appli- cants from seeking treatment as well as to implement or broaden protections for healthcare workers who do seek treatment. The degree of movement made by states and healthcare entities on this subject varies significantly.

Depression and Burnout
According to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), death by suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among Americans. In 2021, 48,183 people died by suicide and an estimated 1.7 million attempted suicide. In comparison to the general population, the prevalence of death by suicide among physicians is 40% higher among male physicians and 130% higher among female physicians. The rate of depression, substance use, and other behavioral health disorders are higher among medical students and female physicians when compared to other professions.

Burnout is often confused with depression because the symptoms may seem the same or overlap. It is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress” that impacts physical, mental, and occupational well-being. The key symptoms of exhaustion, cognitive impairment, poor work performance, loss of empathy, and social withdrawal may contribute to experiencing depressive symptoms.

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