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Provider Burnout

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Last Update: August 14, 2019.


Burnout is a job-related stress syndrome resulting in emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. It was first described by Maslach et al. in the Maslach Burnout Inventory Manuel (1996). In February 2003, the European Forum of Medical Associations and the World Health Organization issued statements about serious concerns regarding burnout levels in healthcare providers and advised that all national medical associations pay attention to this issue. In the last decade, it has been more apparent that provider burnout is turning into an epidemic. National studies suggest that over fifty percent of physicians experience symptoms related to burnout, which is significantly higher than the general population.[1][2] A similar trend regarding rates of exhaustion has been seen in both medical students as well as in graduate medical education (i.e., residents/fellows.[3] Healthcare has experienced major challenges over the last thirty years with an aging population, managed care and the integration of technology.

The reality of these challenges can be seen manifest in long working hours, high and sometimes unsustainable productivity goals, and greater overall difficulty of balancing work and life; all of which are some of the major precursors of provider burnout.[4][5] If not addressed burnout promptly leads to depression, addiction, and suicidal ideation.[6] Also, it has a negative impact on physicians, patients, and organizational outcomes. Studies suggest that burnout is not only an individual provider issue but a sign of corporate malaise, and like this solutions should also target these regulatory issues.[7][8] In this article, we will concentrate on physician burnout in particular.


Factors Responsible for provider burnout includes 

  • Increased work hours
  • Bureaucratic/administrative work
  • Electronic Health Record (increased screen time)
  • Failure to achieve work-life integration
  • Increased focus on productivity 
  • Lack of leadership support
  • Lack of meaningful work
  • Lack of collegiality at work
  • Lack of individual and organizational value alignment
  • Lack of flexibility/work control


National studies have shown that fifty percent of physicians are burned out. Female physicians are slightly more prone to burnout than men. The rate of burnout seems to be higher depending on specialty (Urology, Neurology, Emergency Medicine, Surgery, Family Practice, Internal Medicine)[21]; with primary care physicians experiencing the highest rate of burnout compared to that of inpatient physicians.  Medical students and Residents seem to have similar rates of burnout when compared to their fully licensed and practicing colleagues, which seems to imply that this syndrome begins very early on in medical education and persists throughout the acculturation process of healthcare professionals. 


While physicians work in highly stressful environments and situations, they are not taught how to manage the on-going nature of that stress. This lack of instruction means is that Burnout has a  lot to do with how individual providers respond to this chronic stress. Pathological responses, in turn, lead to burnout and increase the risk for depression and suicide among physicians. [20]

Stress---> Burnout ---> Depression ---> Suicide

History and Physical

Symptoms of Burnout 

  • Emotional exhaustion - refers to mental and physical fatigue
  • Depersonalization - refers to cynicism (loss of altruism)
  • -Personal achievement - refers to a lack of competence and self-efficacy

Signs of Burnout 

  • Poor quality of work and increased medical errors
  • Patient safety issues
  • Poor patient satisfaction
  • Lack of physician engagement 
  • Poor retention rate and early retirement


The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is the most widely used tool and developed in 1980. Though there are other tools available (e.g., Copenhagen Burnout Inventory), the MBI is still regarded as the gold standard in measuring provider burnout. It has 22 items and consists of three domain. Increased scores on emotional exhaustion and depersonalization correlate with the greater extent of experienced burnout, as does diminished personal accomplishment. MBI can be used for single-item measures of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and have been validated as accurate proxy measures of burnout in larger surveys.[9]

Treatment / Management

Studies suggest that burnout is not an individual issue alone but also a hazard of organizational dysfunction. Though Initiatives at the individual level are important to tackle this epidemic, studies have shown that changes must be made at the organizational level as well to maximize the effectiveness of either. [7][8]

Personal Initiatives 

  • Improving physician wellness and resilience. Resiliency refers to the stress coping abilities of a person.
  • Mindfulness is one of the proven techniques which has shown to provide the coping mechanism to deal with stress. 
  • Reducing personal work effort has also been shown to decrease burnout. A longitudinal study was done by Shanafelt et al. at Mayo Clinic found that increased burnout is inversely proportional to professional work effort. Another study by the Association of American Medical Colleges demonstrated an increase in burnout in US physicians between 2011 to 2014. This result translated into approximately a one percent decrease in physician professional effort, which equals a loss equivalent of the entire graduating class of 7 medical colleges.
  • Self-care practices (e.g., exercise, regular health check-up)
  • Self-awareness.[10]

Organizational Intiatives[11][12]

-  Recognizing organizational issues and assessing the extent of burnout of employees regularly

  • Effective leadership
  • Developing Specific and targeted interventions
  • Improving collegiality at work (e.g., Peer support group/Physician discussion initiative). 
  • Recognizing work and incentivizing using a compensation model
  • Value alignment is important to make sure that physicians and organizations are committed to similar goals. Also, organizational culture must support these shared values.
  • Providing physicians with more flexibility 
  • Investment in physician wellbeing 
  • Development of evidence-based strategies

Differential Diagnosis

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Suicide


  • Depression - Burnout, and depression overlap but they are a different entity altogether. Depression leads to lack of energy in one's life but burnout is only work related (Bakker et al. Anxiety Stress Coping, 2000)
  • Addictions 
  • Suicide 

Pearls and Other Issues

By 2025, the US Department of Health and Human Services projects that there will be a population of approximately 45,000 to 90,000 physicians with poor working conditions and high levels of stress.  Stress is a reason for deterring people from entering the profession. One of the steps to be taken to improve this shortfall is vigilance among the instructors and institutions training doctors and nurses. Leaders in healthcare have a very critical role to play in addressing this issue. There is clear evidence to support that physicians are spending 20% of their professional time in the area of work they found meaningful tend to experience symptoms of burnout at a significantly lower rate with a ceiling effect at 20%. [13] Thus, finding meaningful work for and maximizing the skill set of each team member should be a top the priority for healthcare leaders. Studies have also shown that supportive leadership has a positive impact on provider burnout, which makes the reasonable argument to include burnout as a part of the quality measure of every healthcare organization and something that should be evaluated at regular intervals.[14] 

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Organizations have a significant role to play in dealing with this epidemic; however, to reduce burnout and promote physician engagement, both physicians and organizations have to share this responsibility.  Physician organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Physicians (ACP) are taking notice and have started allocating resources to the study and development of interventions targeting burnout. STEPS forward is a program pioneered by the AMA and is an example of this kind of initiative.  Ultimately, healthcare needs more academic and non-academic institutions to study burnout and publish data to understand and help physicians and organizations manage this syndrome more effectively. When issues become apparent, an interprofessional team of clinicians, social workers, and nurses assisting the individual in working through personal challenges will provide the best outcome. [Level V]


To access free multiple choice questions on this topic, click here.


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Dyrbye LN, West CP, Satele D, Boone S, Tan L, Sloan J, Shanafelt TD. Burnout among U.S. medical students, residents, and early career physicians relative to the general U.S. population. Acad Med. 2014 Mar;89(3):443-51. [PubMed: 24448053]
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Bookshelf ID: NBK538330PMID: 30855914


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