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Physician burnout costing US economy $4.6B annually, study finds

Previously thought to be primarily an ethical issue, a new study suggests that physician burnout costs the U.S. economy approximately $4.6 billion every year due to turnover rates and reduced clinical hours.

A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that the impact to the U.S. economy from physician burnout could be as high as $6.3 billion, with $2.6 billion on the low end of the range. The May 28 study measured the economic impact of physician burnout according to costs associated with physician turnover rates and reduced clinical hours. According to the study, physician burnout costs healthcare organizations about $7,600 per employed physician each year, with a range of $3,700 to $11,000.

The authors of the study said while arguments for fixing physician burnout have previously been made on "ethical grounds," their study shows that organizations have a financial incentive to address the issue as well.

SNL Image
A 2014 study showed that about 54% of physicians reported
at least one symptom of burnout,
nearly twice as much as the
general U.S. working population, according to the
Annals of
Internal Medicine
study.

Source: Thinkstock

Along with the substantial economic impact, physician burnout has been associated with "poorer overall quality of patient care, lower patient satisfaction and malpractice lawsuits," according to the study.

The authors said their $4.6 billion estimate was "conservative" due to other costs that are harder to quantify and were not included in the study. Those costs include reduced patient access to care due to fewer physician hours, the disruption of patient care and facilities losing patients due to lower patient satisfaction.

Occupational burnout is defined as a "state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity," according to the Mayo Clinic. The issue of physician burnout has come into the spotlight recently as studies emerge showing high rates of burnout in the industry.

In a March 2017 post in the health journal Health Affairs, CEOs and healthcare leaders from groups such as the Mayo Clinic, the American Medical Association, and hospitals and health systems across the country said while burnout is important to address for all professions, physicians are reporting burnout at higher rates than the rest of the U.S. working population.

The May 28 study echoed a similar point, highlighting statistics from a 2014 study that showed approximately 54% of physicians reported at least one symptom of occupational burnout — nearly twice as high as the general working population in the U.S.

While other studies have measured the rate of physician burnout, the authors said very few have outlined the economic impact of the issue in an "easily understandable" way.

"As a result, policymakers cannot holistically assess the extent of the burnout problem and develop appropriate policy responses, nor are leaders of healthcare organizations equipped to make informed decisions when determining whether to invest scarce resources into programs to mitigate burnout," the study said.