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Burnout common amongst US doctors, study shows

Physicians with low empathy at highest risk

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Burnout amongst doctors is common, according to new US findings.

In a study*, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was reported that resident physician burnout in the US is widespread, with the highest rates concentrated in certain specialties.

The study found 45% of respondents experienced at least one major symptom of burnout, with those in urology, neurology, emergency medicine and general surgery at the highest risk. Regardless of specialty, high levels of anxiety and low levels of empathy reported during medical school were associated with burnout symptoms during residency.

"Our data show wide variability in the prevalence of burnout by clinical specialty, and that anxiety, social support and empathy during medical school relate to the risk of burnout during residency," says Liselotte Dyrbye, a Mayo Clinic researcher and first author of the article.

Residents with burnout had more than a threefold increase in odds of regretting their decision to become a physician. When asked, "If you could revisit your career choice, would you choose to become a physician again?" those in pathology and anaesthesiology were also most likely to respond "definitely not" or "probably not."

Similarly, the higher the level of anxiety reported during medical school, the greater the chance of regretting becoming a physician.

However, not all of the study's findings were negative. Participants who reported high empathy scores during medical school appeared to be more resilient to burnout during residency. This is counter to the common narrative that physicians need "thick skin" or an emotional aloofness to perform.

Similarly, high empathy scores during medical school were associated with a willingness to choose the same specialty again. In addition, participants who reported higher emotional social support during medical school were generally happier with their specialty choice.

The study included nearly 3,600 participants who were surveyed in the fourth year of medical school with follow-up in second year of residency. It was derived from a larger study of medical students called the Cognitive Habits and Growth Evaluation Study that has tracked a group of students from their first year of medical school through the last year of residency.

About 50 medical schools were included in the research. Residents were asked to provide information about their specialty, ethnicity, educational debt and other demographic characteristics. They then completed surveys that have previously been developed to measure anxiety, emotional social support, empathy and burnout.


*Dyrbye LN, Burke SE, Hardeman RR, et al. Association of Clinical Specialty With Symptoms of Burnout and Career Choice Regret Among US Resident Physicians. JAMA. 2018;320(11):1114-1130. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.12615

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