A University of Kansas Health System professor has found that gender influences physician burnout and a systemic shift is needed to address the issue.
Kim Templeton, professor of orthopedic surgery, worked with the National Academy of Medicine to look at issues related to burnout.
Female physicians are more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion. Male physicians, however, are more likely to suffer from depersonalization, where they "feel somewhat emotionally disconnected to your work and to your patients," Templeton said.
According to the Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report, 46 percent of physicians indicated they had burnout.
Templeton said burnout isn't surprising given the nature of the job, which may include treating critically ill or dying patients on a daily basis.
According to Templeton, there isn't data that indicates working fewer hours has an impact on burnout.
"I think it's less about people wanting to work fewer hours than being able to maintain their identity as a person so that they don't become this entity that works 24/7 and doesn't have time to do what it is that they want to do," she said. "As we're looking at a variety of ways of combating burnout, one of the things to address is to recognize that physicians are still people, that they have feelings, they are impacted by what they see at work, but they also have lives outside of medicine."
While a younger generation of physicians may ask for fewer working hours, the issue is more the support from home for what they do at work and support from work for what they do at home.
Women are particularly affected.
"Women physicians still do 70 percent of the work at home," Templeton said.
Employers can help by acknowledging there are responsibilities outside practicing medicine, having leeway in scheduling to take time off, and providing parental and family leave.
Templeton said it is also important to understand that burnout isn't "a defect within the physician, it's the system."
There can be a disconnect between a physician's priorities and what a health system prioritizes.
"It's turning more to a big business model," she said. "If you think that the organization has different priorities than you do whether that's true or not, then when you have issues like trying to take off time to do what you need to do outside of work, if that's not accessible, then all that does is increase this feeling that you and your employer are going down different paths."
Other ways to support female physicians include leadership training and making clear that gender bias and sexual harassment aren't acceptable.
Addressing burnout is important because people are leaving medicine as the need for health care services grows, Templeton said.
"We are already suffering from a physician shortage, so we can't lose additional people," she said. "Women also make up now more than half of the medical students in the incoming classes, and so when you're looking at a gender issue, that's especially going to be an issue as these women go further along in their careers, we need to keep them in their careers."
It's also important from a patient standpoint to optimize care, she said.
Stormont Vail Health has taken several steps to address burnout.
"Developing a sense of belonging, a belief that you serve a noble purpose and have real positive impacts, helps to drive positive work and career engagement," said Robert Kenagy, senior vice president and chief medical officer. "At Stormont Vail, our new physicians feel supported through a yearlong orientation, which includes a mentoring program that pairs the new physician with a more established physician within our health system. This gives them someone who will be reaching out and checking in with the new physician.
"I also personally meet with each new physician in their first year of practice, to ensure they are having a good experience, are well supported and are settling into their practice."
Stormont Vail Health also offers a job sharing option for a flexible workweek and has added team members to their primary care setting, including social workers, mental health providers and care managers.
"This delivery model enhances the patient experience and reinforces the sense of belonging to and leading a team," Kenagy said.
Monthly medical group meetings also help develop connections, he said.
At the University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus, CEO Steve Anderson and chef medical officer Jackie Hyland have open door policies and encourage physicians "to talk with us about issues related to job satisfaction that might lead to burnout," Anderson said.
The hospital also works with physicians to accommodate a work-life balance, and many specialties are adding advance practice providers to relieve some of the workload from physicians, he said.