Counting the costs: US hospitals feeling the pain of physician burnout
Stressed doctor (Shutterstock)

Dr. Brian Halloran, a vascular surgeon at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, starts planning his garden long before spring arrives in southeast Michigan.


His tiny plot, located in the shadow of the 537-bed teaching hospital, helps Halloran cope with burnout from long hours and the stress of surgery on gravely ill patients.

"You really have to find the balance to put it a little more in perspective," he said.

Hospitals such as St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor have been investing in programs ranging from yoga classes to personal coaches designed to help doctors become more resilient. But national burnout rates keep rising, with up to 54 percent of doctors affected.

Some leading healthcare executives now say the way medicine is practiced in the United States is to blame, fueled in part by growing clerical demands that have doctors spending two hours on the computer for every one hour they spend seeing patients.

What's more, burnout is not just bad for doctors; it's bad for patients and bad for business, according to interviews with more than 20 healthcare executives, doctors and burnout experts.

"This really isn't just about exercise and getting enough sleep and having a life outside the hospital," said Dr. Tait Shanafelt, a former Mayo Clinic researcher who became Stanford Medicine's first chief physician wellness officer in September.

"It has at least as much or more to do with the environment in which these folks are practicing," he said.

Shanafelt and other researchers have shown that burnout erodes job performance, increases medical errors and leads doctors to leave a profession they once loved.

For a graphic, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2zMlmuy

Hospitals can ill afford these added expenses in an era of tight margins, costly nursing shortages and uncertainty over the fate of the Affordable Care Act, which has put capital projects and payment reform efforts on hold.

"Burnout decreases productivity and increases errors. It's a big deal," said Cleveland Clinic Chief Executive Dr. Toby Cosgrove, one of 10 U.S. healthcare CEOs who earlier this year declared physician burnout a public health crisis.