Two-thirds of emergency doctors suffering burnout, survey finds

Younger professionals are more likely to experience symptoms than more experienced colleagues

Almost two-thirds of doctors working in hospital emergency departments are experiencing symptoms of burnout, leading many to contemplate a change of career, according to a new survey.

Burnout tended to affect younger professionals more significantly than those who were older and more experienced, the survey of Irish emergency medicine doctors found.

“This is worrying because these are the emergency medicine specialists of tomorrow,” said Irish Association of Emergency Medicine president, Dr Fergal Hickey. “The increase in understaffing that will arise as people leave their jobs will only make matters worse for those who remain.”

The Irish findings of increased workload and stress are in line with the international results of the survey conducted by the European Society of Emergency Medicine. Across 89 countries, 62 per cent of those who responded had at least one symptom of burnout and 31 per cent had two.


Only 41 per cent of doctors reported having access to psychological supports, either face-to-face or at a distance. The consequences of burnout, Dr Hickey pointed out, can include post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug abuse and even suicide in extreme cases.

“If an EM worker is overworked and under stress, this will have a negative effect on patient care” said Dr Hickey. “Burnout can manifest itself as an indifferent attitude to patient care and compassion fatigue as well as reducing the productivity and efficiency of the professional. It can lead to lower-quality care and an increase in medical errors.”

The report concludes that healthcare professionals with burnout have a greater tendency to step aside and feed the “vicious circle” of staff shortages and the loss of educated professionals. “This situation, if not addressed correctly and urgently by policymakers, is likely to represent a threat to the healthcare system,” say the authors.

Calling for urgent action to deal with “this ever-worsening situation”, the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine said there the practice of “lodging” patients in EDs after their care has been completed needs to end. It also called for appropriate staffing and resources for EDs, and alternative pathways of care for patients forced to attend them.

Meanwhile, the Irish Medical Organisation will discuss the challenges facing the health services post-Covid-19 at its first in-person AGM in three years.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly will address delegates at the conference in Dublin on Saturday afternoon.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on the health service, but promised major efforts are being made to reduce ED wait times.

The first twenty weeks of the year have been among the worst for hospitals as they bid to cope with an influx of patients and infection control measures for Covid-19, he told RTE Radio. The period included 12 of the highest weeks on record for presentations to EDs, particularly among older patients.

However, staffing and other issues were improving now. Nursing home have more capacity and are discharging more people, with only 10-12 per cent still suffering a Covid outbreak.

“Within the emergency department itself we are very focused on initiatives around greater screening processes with the local community and local GP’s. We are finalising emergency department specific plans for each emergency department in each hospital. We are scaling up recruitment. It is about very specific targeted intervention.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times