6 in 10 Physicians Say Their Practices Aren’t Adequately Addressing Burnout

June 21, 2021
A new survey from athenahealth reveals an array of findings around physician burnout and how administrative work is viewed as a significant pain point

A new Physician Sentiment Index from health IT vendor athenahealth reveals that 61 percent of responding physicians feel their practices have not taken any concrete steps in the last 12 months to mitigate physician burnout.

The survey was fielded between Oct. 13, 2020 and Dec. 23, 2020, and generated responses from a broad sampling of 799 physicians using a variety of EHR vendors—both athenahealth EHR and non-athenahealth users—and was conducted to understand how physicians feel about the resources and support they receive to do their job in an effort to better identify and address opportunities to fortify our essential healthcare workers, according to officials from the Watertown, Mass.-based vendor. Most respondents (64 percent) were from independent practices followed by hospital-affiliated practices (22 percent).

Responding directly to the burnout finding, the survey’s researchers noted that particularly during a pandemic, provider organizations may benefit from developing proactive strategies to reduce physician stress and dissatisfaction. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession, and the data shows that physicians who felt burned out every day were half as likely to believe they would still be with their current organization in three years, compared with physicians who never felt burned out.

Drilling down into the survey findings around burnout, of the women physicians in the survey, 32 percent reported feeling burned out once per week or more compared to 26 percent of male physicians. Women also say they spend more time working at home outside of normal hours, reporting that 19 percent of their work time is spent in off hours, compared to 14 percent for men. Of the survey respondents, 54 percent described themselves as men and 41 percent as women.

The research also found that older physicians experience burnout less frequently: The survey found that older physicians (65 and above) were burned out less frequently (with 52 percent responding “never” or “a few times a year or less”) than their younger counterparts (37 percent) under 65.

Also of note, physicians from Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) —which receive federal funds to provide primary care services in underserved areas—saw higher rates of burnout. More FQHC physicians (55 percent) feel burned out compared to those at independent practices (44 percent). Additionally, physicians at FQHCs were less likely to describe their workload as manageable (42 percent at FQHCs agree or strongly agree vs. 60 percent at independent practices).

The survey data suggests administrative work may be a significant pain point for provider organizations, with physicians reporting an average of 13.5 hours per week on tasks other than direct patient care. Nearly half (47 percent) of all physicians surveyed reported feeling rushed and unable to spend enough time with each patient at least once a week. Additionally, only about a third (29 percent) of physicians felt their organization is set up well to minimize administrative tasks.

There were similar results when respondents were asked about after-hours work. Physicians reported spending an average of eight hours per week after hours, likely catching up on administrative “homework”. Compared with physicians who reported spending two hours per week or less after-hours, those spending five or more were nearly twice as likely to report feeling rushed with patients more than once per week (25 percent vs. 43 percent).

“Burnout continues to affect a troublingly large swath of the physician population. The burden appears to be greater for female physicians, and for physicians who treat underserved populations,” said Jessica Sweeney-Platt, vice president of research and editorial strategy at athenahealth. “Healthcare leaders should be concerned about this ongoing issue at an individual level—for the wellbeing of their colleagues—as well as at a systemic level. The past year has reinforced how critical these front-line physicians are to the health of their communities, and therefore we must create an environment that allows these caregivers to remain and thrive in the profession.”