Doctors Are Burned Out by Busywork: Study

3 minute read

Of all professionals in the U.S., doctors experience some of the highest rates of burnout: the feeling of being so emotionally exhausted from work that you start to feel indifferent about those you’re serving. More than half of doctors feel this way, recent research shows.

If that sounds like a bad thing for people whose job it is to heal others, it is. (Check out TIME’s in-depth investigation into doctor stress for more.) Studies have linked burnout to a rise in unprofessional behavior, a drop in patient satisfaction and a greater chance that a doctor will make a major medical error.

There’s no one cause for doctor burnout, but a new study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings has found a major one: the increasingly electronic nature of medicine. The digital parts of doctoring, like maintaining electronic health records, were linked to physician burnout.

Like many of us, doctors are spending more and more time in front of their screens. Health records are now maintained electronically and doctors submit medication orders to pharmacies by computer—both strategies meant to streamline doctors’ visits, reduce errors and improve patient care.

But digitization affects doctors too—and not, it seems, for the better. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at several months of 2014 survey data from 6,560 U.S. physicians measuring features of work life, including burnout and electronic use. Even after controlling for factors like age, sex, specialty and the number of hours doctors work per week, the researchers found a strong link between burnout and time spent doing digital work. Of the many physicians who used electronic health records, 44% were dissatisfied with them and nearly 63% of doctors believed that EHRs made their jobs less efficient. Nearly half of doctors said that they spent an unreasonable amount of time on clerical tasks related to patient care.

Older doctors hated the electronic aspects of their jobs more than young physicians, possibly because they had to adjust to new technology that comes more easily to younger professionals. But the dissatisfaction with electronic busy work cut across generations. When specialty was considered, urologists, family medicine doctors, ear, nose and throat doctors and neurologists were the least satisfied with clerical work.

Just as disturbing, doctors were split on whether or not electronic health records actually improved patient care; 41% believed that they did not.

Doctors may loathe the electronic parts of their jobs because of more information overload, interruptions and distractions. But there might be a deeper reason doctors hate digital busy work: it eats up time they would otherwise spend with their patients, which is where a large number of physicians derive professional pleasure. “The introduction of computers into the examination room has the potential to shift physicians’ focus away from the patient and the human interaction,” the study authors write, “which is a source of meaning for physicians.”

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