A professor with the department of Psychiatry at the University of California Davis notes that physicians are “inherently very resilient people.” He should know. He is an expert in the psyche of physicians and recently released a paper Physician Suicide: Cases and Commentaries. Although resilient, physicians may be feeling the stress of the coronavirus pandemic more than most and this stress has translated to an increase in burnout.
Medscape recently released their annual report on physician burnout and suicide. Researchers gathered data by asking Medscape member physicians to partake in a short, online survey. 12,339 physicians currently practicing in the United States completed the survey from August through November of 2020.
According to the report, 42% of physicians report burnout. The report delves a bit deeper, breaking down the rates by specialty. Based on their findings, doctors practicing in Critical Care were the most likely to report burnout, at 51%, followed by Rheumatology, Infections Disease, Urology, Pulmonary Medicine, Neurology, Family Medicine and Internal Medicine specialties, all with rates of 46 to 50%. Interestingly, the top five specialties reporting burnout were different in 2020, most likely due to the pandemic. In the past, the top spots were urology, neurology and nephrology. In 2020, burnout rates were highest in critical care, rheumatology and infectious diseases.
Contributing factors directly attributed to the pandemic include a lack of personal protective equipment, difficult conditions and long hours as well as the emotional stress that comes with the grief of losing patients. This stress can contribute to depression, and physicians are not always the best at getting the help they need. One reason: concern about getting reported to the medical board.
In Texas, the medical board has five questions about mental and physical health. These include questions about substance abuse, physical and neurological condition impairments and whether or a not the physicians been treated for any “psychotic disorder, delusional disorder, mood disorder, major depression, personality disorder, or any other mental health condition which impaired or does impair [the physician’s] behavior, judgment, or ability to function in school or work?” Critics argue the process is a violation of the physician applicant’s rights to privacy under HIPAA. Those who face the threat of penalty from a state medical board can fight back. Depending on the details, the medical board’s tactics may be a violation of federal law and the AMA Code of Ethics.