January 31, 2020  | Updated: May 13, 2020

Category: Mental Health, Physicians


  • Large percentage of physicians report burnout
  • “Moral fatigue” examined as more appropriate description
  • New report states that toxic workplace may be the cause

Reports of physician burnout are becoming increasingly common in the industry, and the focus of the cause is starting to shift.

In a Medscape survey published in 2020, 42 percent of physicians said they’ve experienced burnout. Other studies show that the numbers could potentially be even higher, such as a 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians Practice Patterns and Perspectives, which reported a whopping 78 percent of physicians experienced burnout.

According to a recent article published by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), about half of American physicians feel “burned out” and therefore unable to serve their patients well. The root cause of physician burnout is increasingly becoming the center of attention, with an increasing rate of physician suicides.

According to the AAPS, the difficulty is not pathology in physicians. Instead, it is the existence of a toxic work environment physicians are pressured by third parties to act in ways that are conflicting to the best interest of their patients, according to Dr. Robert Emmons, a Vermont psychiatrist.

Some of these actions include surveillance directed toward organizational interests rather than genuine patient interests, retaliation for not following an agenda set by their organization, excessive certification and testing, and a salary that is below fair market value.

In the winter issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Emmons proposes “moral fatigue” is a more appropriate term than “burnout” for a physician’s emotional responses to these toxic practices.

Due to constant pressure to serve the organization before their patients, physicians may experience a range of negative feelings, including compassion fatigue, cynicism, and a lack of personal achievement.

According to the 2020 Medscape survey, in specific fields of practice, the rates of physician “burnout” vary. Urologists suffer from a 54 percent burnout rate, neurologists rank at 50 percent, and physical medicine and rehabilitation practitioners came in at 43 percent. This years report focused on a generational divide, with Generation X physicians reporting noticeably more burnout than other generations:

Millenials: 38%
Baby Boomers: 39%
Generation X: 48%

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