Whether experiencing emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, or a low sense of personal achievement, 4 in 10 surgeons exhibit signs and symptoms of burnout. Among neurosurgeons that number jumps to nearly 60 percent. Burnt out surgeons are more likely to report substance abuse, clinical depression, and suicidal ideation. They are more prone to medical errors.
Interestingly, academic practice, trauma sub-specialty, increased nights of call, longer hours worked, younger age, female gender, and small children at home were all risk factors for burnout. For those of you who are new to this blog, I am a female academic trauma surgeon who routinely works long hours and takes in-house call while my small children are at home.
To be clear, these data prove associations and association do not equal causation, but still it is sobering to think that so many who entered a profession to fundamentally improve the lives of others are themselves leading such troubled lives due to their chosen occupation.
The occupational hazards of surgical careers are multiple. We experience moral distress when our patients experience complications or die whether or not an error occurred. We develop compassion fatigue by bearing witness to our patients collective and continuous suffering no matter how successful any individual’s outcome may be. Due to our long and often erratic hours, we suffer from chronic fatigue and sleep deprivation. The physical plight caused by fatigue is complicated by many hours on our feet and maintaining awkward postures in the operating room. By routinely putting our patients before ourselves, we often exhibit illness presenteeism. We often faced the double bind of being there for our patients or being there for our family.
Meanwhile, whether it’s catching up with billing and coding one day or keeping up with meaningful use another day or spending days studying subjects totally irrelevant to one’s daily practice for maintenance of certification, delivering care in the modern error requires us to do a lot of frustrating tasks that ultimately do nothing to benefit our patients. Furthermore, there is the constant fear of litigation that might ruin us in financially or reputationally. And so, it is not surprising that so many of us are burned out.