Burnout taking its toll on the medical profession

A problem that contributes to medical errors and patient dissatisfaction

 

There is growing awareness and some concern about burnout among healthcare professionals. The phenomenon was first described in 1974 and is characterised by emotional exhaustion resulting in decreased accomplishment at work. The causes are complex.

According to an editorial in the current issue of the Irish Medical Journal, stress and burnout among doctors can be generated by a combination of excessive workloads and work hours, complaints from patients and inadequate access to administrative supports.

In 2011, research found that some 45 per cent of more than 7,000 doctors studied had at least one symptom of burnout. It can affect doctors at all stages of their careers.

Occupational health experts point to psychosocial hazards as the main workplace stressors nowadays. Although most people have peaks and troughs in their work, for many healthcare workers the demands of the job are unrelenting.

The Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain & Ireland recently called for a change to the culture around night shift working. It says a junior doctor in an acute hospital specialty, such as anaesthesia, will work well over a year’s worth of hospital night shifts in the first decade of their career. Consultants, too, experience repeated sleep interruption during nights on call.

The representative body called on healthcare professions and managers to acknowledge that working at night is not the same as working in daytime and said that steps must be taken by all parties to manage night working.

Ill-defined job descriptions also contribute to burnout as does bullying. Medical Council research has confirmed the prevalence of bullying in the workplace, with one third of doctors in training here affected. Physician burnout has been linked to increased medical errors and patient dissatisfaction.

The threat to patient safety is perhaps the most compelling reason why the issue needs to be openly discussed and steps taken to reduce its prevalence. The Department of Health must engage with professional bodies on a joint approach to it.

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