Academic physicians avoid burnout by focusing on favorite tasks

Many reported that patient care was most rewarding, followed by research.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted June 9, 2009

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Physicians at academic medical centers may be less likely to experience burnout if they spend at least one day a week on the aspect of work that is most meaningful to them, according to a study in the May 25 Archives of Internal Medicine (link).

Previous studies found that there are high levels of burnout and poor mental health among physicians, the researchers wrote. Decreased autonomy, a high administrative workload, less time with patients, and difficulty balancing personal and professional responsibilities all contribute to physician distress, they said.

These mounting worries are particularly evident among faculty at academic centers, who must add teaching requirements to their clinical and administrative responsibilities, said study lead author Tait D. Shanafelt, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he also directs Mayo's Dept. of Medicine Program on Physician Well-Being.

Dr. Shanafelt and colleagues at Mayo surveyed 465 faculty members in the fall of 2007 to understand better how career satisfaction could be improved and burnout risk reduced.

When asked which aspect of work they found most meaningful, 68% of respondents said patient care, 19% picked research, 9% selected teaching and 3% chose administration. Researchers found that burnout was less likely among the 385 physicians who reported spending at least 20% of their time, or one day per week, on the activity they found most meaningful.

"What we are seeing here is that if you are unable to spent at least 20% of your effort, or one day a week, in that activity where you find motivation, it is a recipe for a bad fit in that job and the likelihood you won't last very long," Dr. Shanafelt said.

A first step in determining career satisfaction should come via an annual review with faculty members, wrote Mark Linzer, MD, professor in the Dept. of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in an editorial in the same Archives issue (link).

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