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Doctor Burnout

I just read an interesting article that was recently in my local Minneapolis/Twin Cities’ newspaper, the Star Tribune, arguing that doctor burnout is on the rise in Minnesota as well as the rest of the country. This isn’t really surprising, however, given the problems of doctor and medical staff shortages, rising health care costs, and the complicated messes that plague most health insurance companies (I say this as a frustrated patient, of course, often “fighting” with my own insurance company) which in turn affects the care doctors and nurses give to their patients.

Here’s a link to the article: “Doctor Burnout is a Rising Problem in Minnesota Medicine”

I sometimes worry a little bit about my own rheumatologist and wonder how he copes with and handles his crazy-busy schedule and large caseload of patients. Impressively, despite how busy or haggard-exhausted he looks, he always finds the time and patience to sit with me during my appointments for as long as I need. I never feel rushed and I always feel respected and listened to by him, for which I am so thankful. And I think this is the way it should be. Sadly, I have experienced many other doctors who are not like this, but instead rush in and out of the room and then leave me there after 10 very brief minutes of my so-called “appointment,” feeling a bit bewildered and a lot annoyed. Did I really need to waste my time, energy, and money to be barely seen and to be treated like a number? I don’t think so.

While the article mostly reflects on the problem of doctor burnout affecting primary care physicians and clinics, it does acknowledge that it’s also a problem across many specialties. I would be curious to hear some statistics and information on what doctor burnout is like in the rheumatology and chronic pain fields. Based on the complicated and unpredictable (and, well, chronic) nature of RA (and many other chronic illnesses), I’m willing to bet that doctor burnout does indeed exist in rheumatology, especially due to the fact that many states in the U.S. suffer from a shortage of rheumatologists. And doctors and nurses are forced to jump through so many hoops from insurance companies just trying to get their patients’ expensive medications and treatments covered. I also imagine that it would be emotionally draining working and relating with patients who suffer from chronic pain, and often pain that is disabling and debilitating. When I stop to think about it, I would not want to be in my rheumatologist’s shoes day in and day out.

To contrast the excellent care I receive from my rheumatologist and rheumatology clinic, I continue to have very frustrating problems with my primary care clinic. I don’t know for sure, but I assume that a large part of the problems I’ve experienced are due to overworked physicians and staff and especially the staff shortage in that clinic. Usually, whenever I have a primary care concern come up (sinus infection, stomach issues, etc.), I have such a difficult time getting my phone calls and messages returned. I’m forced to repeatedly call the clinic and leave messages with some faceless person in the call center, which ends up infuriating me after I invariably waste a lot of time and energy just trying to get a nurse to call me back. Unacceptable.

Recently I finally met and spoke with the office manager at my primary care clinic to discuss these issues with him. He was very attentive and nice about listening to my complaints, however he did somewhat apologetically admit that the doctors and staff are all too busy and overworked for the number of patients they have to see and talk to on a daily basis. Yes, okay, that makes sense. But is it fair to me, the patient, to not be able to get the quality of care I think I deserve? He also told me that I’m not the only one who has complained about not receiving return phone calls and having issues with the call center. Not surprising. I made a comment about how great the rheumatology clinic is at returning my phone calls and e-messages and in a prompt manner and that the “service” between the two clinics is a night and day difference. Granted, they’re not the same clinic with the same numbers and types of patients. But I feel like I should still be able to get the same quality of care regardless of which clinic it is.

So what can be done about all of these burnt-out doctors? The Star Tribune article mentions various support options and programs available for doctors, to help ease their stress and emotional/mental issues.

Also according to the article, Allina Health hospital and clinic system is experimenting with additional support staff for doctors in six of its 55 Minnesota primary care clinics, while its United Heart and Vascular Clinic is hiring “scribes” — clinic workers who input data into electronic records while doctors see patients.

Apparently those pesky electronic records and all of the patient documentation and “paperwork” required by doctors to complete is a main contributor to burnout. One doctor complained that “medicine has become like factory work,” while others cited frustration over the disproportionate time spent on paperwork compared to time spent (or not spent) with patients. It’s doubtful that electronic records would be done away with anytime in the near future (or ever?), so hopefully more health systems will start to find new ways to deal with the problem of doctors drowning in documentation.

Does your doctor suffer from burnout? Or have you had any health care experiences affected by burnt-out doctors and staff? I’m sure I can’t be the only one, sadly. Thankfully I feel like my rheumatology clinic has an organized and efficient system in place for attending to their patients. I just wish my primary clinic could get its act together soon. As a chronic illness patient with a compromised immune system, I need good quality of care wherever I go and from whomever I see.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Cassandra Bird
    4 years ago

    Totally agree Angela. I live in the UK so its somewhat different here. However I also find a greater quality of care and interest in patients than any other dept either at primary care or within the hospital. I’m very grateful our rheumy dept has a nurse (not grateful she has it but grateful for having her involved in my health care) who has RA herself and has had it since she was 21. I’m forever ourstanded by her ability to work so hard helping other similar people when she’s battled this disease for so long and has numerous deformed joints. Her knowledge in the field makes her the finest medical person I have ever met. Best wishes and hope for the future of healthcare worldwide x

  • Anke Schliessmann
    4 years ago

    Hi Angela,
    I think you really made a point here. I would like to add one other aspect, especially for rheumatologists and how they may be approached by burnout. They cannot heal us in the true sense of the meaning. In most cases they can put us to remission, they can help us to mitigate some or even more or all symptoms, but they will never heal us. Last time when I had to see my rheumy I had the last appointment of the day and had to wait for an hour due to several emergency cases that happened over the day. When I was waiting the nurse told my that one of those emergencies was a 4 year old child. What do you feel if you are the doctor and see a 4 year old one with RA and know you can help, but not cure his/her disease? It must be awful. From my perspective this is adding up for burnout as well, since in most of the cases pure work overload for a period of time will not make a burnout. The frustration is also adding to that to a big extent.

    I totally agree with you that we as a chronic illness patient need good quality of care but I tend also to set myself and my wishes/concerns back when I see that “my” doctor is not in a good mental shape. I move some not urgent but important topics to next appointment in those cases, which is probably not good for me. Best thing would be to move the whole appointment to another day, but due to overload of the care giver this would take quite long.

    How do you feel and react in those situations?

    Best regards

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