Less than half of US doctors are happy at work

Is it me you’re looking for?
Is it me you’re looking for?
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Medscape, a trade medical publication, released their annual physician lifestyle report this week. They analyzed survey results from more than 14,000 US doctors practicing in 30 different specialities about how their work affected the rest of their lives in 2016.

Some doctors reported being a lot happier than others, but even the specialists who were happiest at work still overwhelmingly reported dissatisfaction:

More worryingly, doctors across all specialties have become more burned out than they’ve been in recent years. Here, burnout is defined as “as loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”

Some of the causes of burnout are what you’d expect at any job: bureaucracy, too many hours on the job, and “feeling like just a cog in a wheel” were some of the top reasons doctors listed. However, they also complained about feeling like they didn’t have enough time to give patients the attention they needed, and emotional fatigue resulting from seeing too much violence and having patients die. These consequences undoubtedly vary by specialty. Although skin conditions treated by dermatologists can be serious (like melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer), other physicians, such as emergency and critical care doctors, likely face more acute stress. By definition, these doctors are looking after patients who are at an extremely high risk of death from one or more compromised vital organs.

Physician burnout is a serious problem for doctors professionally and personally. Higher rates of depression can lead to more mistakes, and US doctors have 10% to 20% higher divorce rates than the rest of Americans. It’s likely a product of the nature of practicing medicine—from college to medical school to internships and residencies, getting into the medical field is highly competitive.

This is also probably why physicians make the big bucks: Doctors are some of the best paid professionals in the US.

The charts in this post have been updated to show more recent data.