July 29, 2021 — Much attention and literature have focused on increased doctor burnout, which has worsened during the COVID-19 global pandemic. But according to a new survey, this burnout also has an impact on patients.
The research, published by virtual healthcare technology company Wheel and independent research firm PureSpectrum, found that 80% of the 2,000 patients surveyed noticed that their doctor or nurse was burned out during a health care visit in the past year. Specifically, those respondents said their health care provider was highly stressed and exhausted, with 70% of them saying they were alarmed by it. What’s more, 1 in 3 respondents said doctor burnout negatively affected their care quality.
“Our health care workers are reeling from an incomprehensible amount of trauma, burnout, and grief,” says Michelle Davey, CEO and co-founder of Wheel. “This survey demonstrates our failure to provide clinicians with the support and relief they deserve is harming the overall health of our country.”
Is It Burnout or Apathy?
Wheel did the survey to understand the costs of doctor burnout on patients, concluding that it negatively affects patient health and satisfaction.
“They may not label it as burnout; rather something like, ‘My physician doesn’t listen to me,’” says Greenawald, a family doctor with the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, VA.
In the Wheel survey, 1 in 4 respondents said their health care visit felt rushed and their providers did not have the time or energy to listen to their questions.
Rushed visits and doctors’ lack of energy could result in medical errors, which, according to an 8-year study by Johns Hopkins University Medical School, cause 250,000 deaths annually in the United States. Misdiagnoses cause an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 deaths annually nationwide, and an estimated 12 million Americans receive diagnostic errors in primary care settings annually, one-third of which result in serious or permanent damage or even death.
The Global Pandemic’s Effects on Doctor Stress
Public resistance to COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing masks, conspiracy theories dissuading many from getting vaccinated, and general refusal to believe scientific fact all contribute to a public health crisis separate from COVID-19 itself. And this may be taking a toll on doctors’ energy to battle the pandemic each day. In the Wheel survey, 2 in 3 respondents thought the general public’s resistance to taking basic precautions could be adding to clinician burnout.
Another factor, according to the survey, may be waning public appreciation of doctors’ efforts during the pandemic. In the beginning months, there were public displays nationwide celebrating doctors’ efforts to tackle COVID-19 head-on — people put signs in their windows and yards and cheered from their apartment balconies. Now, public enthusiasm has largely decreased. Three in 5 survey respondents said they noticed the increasing lack of recognition for health care workers.
What’s more, general practice doctors have also served as mental health professionals for patients, even though this is not their area of expertise.
Nearly 1 in 3 patients responding to the Wheel survey said they’ve relied on their primary care clinicians for help with mental health issues instead of discussing them with a trained mental health specialist. But doctors have met patient discussions about mental health issues with openness about their own, contradicting the stigma about discussing mental health as a health care professional. Nearly 1 in 8 respondents said their doctor or nurse disclosed they were personally struggling with mental health issues during their health care visit.
From ‘Be Like Fauci’ to ‘Not Worth It’
Early on in the pandemic, the “Fauci effect” drove young people to medicine. But more than a year into the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 and the strain on medical professionals is having a less positive impact.
Forty percent of survey respondents said that they would not want their children to enter the health care profession as a doctor today, and 1 in 3 respondents said that medical school is not worth the investment. One in 4 respondents shared that they personally knew a doctor who would switch careers if they could, confirming widespread reports that doctors are fed up with their work.
“We train to care for people, but we didn’t necessarily train for this,” says Greenawald. “It has exceeded our threshold, for many of us, to control it, to manage it. It’s started to come out more.”
The nation’s health care system already has a shortage of doctors and nurses, so a lack of action to combat doctor stress could worsen an already troubling situation.
“If rates of medical school applications begin to decline, the health care industry will need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge we’re overdue for prioritizing the clinician experience,” the Wheel study said.
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