New Study Reveals the Cost of Physician Burnout is $4.6B

You read that correctly: the U.S. healthcare system shovels out $4.6 billion to cover the cost of doctor burnout each year. A study recently published by the Annals of Internal Medicine has uncovered these sobering numbers.

What does this actually mean for healthcare organizations? The consequences of untreated burnout (turnover and lost work hours), cost organizations about $7600 per employed physician per year. Not to mention, this is a conservative estimate, only taking into account physician turnover and shortened work hours.

What's more? These consequences and costs could have been prevented. Co-creator of the Well-Being Index and co-author of the study, Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, explains that physicians find purpose in helping patients, but systemic expectations get in the way of optimal patient care.

In a recent NPR article, Dyrbye, a Mayo Clinic physician and professor of medicine, describes electronic health record systems, increased reporting standards, and unpredictable schedules as "cumbersome, inefficient." These burdens cause physicians to feel isolated socially and less in control of their own lives.

The study defines burnout as extraordinary symptoms of "emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from work, and a low sense of personal accomplishment." This definition is not unlike the World Heath Organization's updated verbiage.

Putting a Price on Physician Burnout

For Dyrbye and the rest of the researchers, putting a price on physician burnout meant collecting data from recent research findings and reports. This data included direct or inferred findings on clinicians cutting hours back or leaving their job on account of burnout. An algorithm helped the research team estimate the costs due to burnout, namely, the costs of replacing doctors and lost revenue caused by unfilled positions.

Previous research has shown an increased likeliness of on-the-job error, dissatisfied patients, and lawsuits for malpractice as serious consequences of untreated physician burnout. These indirect costs were not even included in the $4.6 billion estimate.

An accompanying editorial by Dr. Edward Ellison, the executive medical director of Southern California Permanente Medical Group, was published along with the current study. In it, he writes that burnout is linked with "anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional and physical exhaustion, and loss of cognitive focus."

Despite that, the most concerning correlation is that with physician suicide rates, Ellison notes. Not only is the physician suicide rate much higher than that of the general public, but it even exceeds that of combat veterans. He writes, "we cannot underestimate the urgency, severity, and tragedy of the human cost."

Dyrbye notes that recent data shows three to four hundred physicians die by suicide every year.

Why don't physicians reach out for help?

Many reasons can deter physicians from seeking help. Dyrbye explains that physicians are required to fill out state licensure forms every year. These forms ask a variety of questions, one being if the individual has ever been diagnosed with depression. Answering "yes" to that question can lead to serious restrictions on medical licenses.

What are We Doing to Solve the Burnout Epidemic?

Physician burnout has been recognized as a problem for years. The study authors' hope is that by connecting a dollar amount to the issue, policymakers and CEOs will take more initiative to assess and combat clinician burnout.

"We hope that people will think about these numbers and say: 'If I invested half that amount of money in systems that improve work efficiency, or ways to build better teams to offload some of the workload from the physician, not only is it the right thing to do, but it's also going to improve my quality and safety, and save me some dollars in the end,'" explains Dyrbye.

How Does the Well-Being Index Help?

A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information and co-authored by Dyrbye describes the usefulness of a short "screening index to identify physicians with distress in a variety of dimensions and whose degree of distress may negatively impact their practice."

The study notes that the Physician Well-Being Index proved its ability to stratify physician well-being into important dimensions, including mental quality-of-life, fatigue, and suicidal ideation. The PWBI is also able to, "identify physicians whose degree of distress may negatively impact their practice," says the study.

Although the tool is able to identify physicians in distress, individual results are never shared with anyone but the participant. Organizations that implement any version of the Well-Being Index are able to access reports with aggregated data points; however, individual assessments remain 100% anonymous.

See How it Works

Interested in seeing how the Well-Being Index anonymously assesses physician distress in just nine questions? Access the free demo account here.

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