Physicians are burned out. Here are 3 reasons why. 

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This is part two of our blog series on the physician staffing shortage and the strategies being discussed to address and even solve this industry-wide challenge.  

In our first post, we explored how an aging, growing population of patients and healthcare providers is one of the primary forces behind the staffing shortage. It’s a concern that needs to be closely watched over the next decade as the population of older adults vastly increases alongside a growing number of retiring physicians.  

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at: 

  • What physician burnout is 

  • The physician specialties most affected by burned out 

  • The three primary causes behind physician burnout 

What is physician burnout? 

Being a physician is stressful. The hours are long. Balancing time spent with patients and time spent with paperwork can be a struggle. COVID-19 changed how patients receive care and now physicians have a set of expectations and demands they need to keep up with.   

It’s no wonder that our doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are burning out.  

Physician burnout is a feeling of long-term emotional exhaustion. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) says this can damage morale, cause healthcare professionals to quit practicing medicine and even lead to depression, alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide. When treating patients, this could lead to: 

  • Failure to form interpersonal relationships with patients 

  • Increased medical errors 

  • Increased risk of malpractice 

  • Reduced patient satisfaction 

Which physicians are most affected by burned out? 

In late 2021, Medscape polled more than 13,000 physicians and asked them to share their experiences and attitudes toward physician burnout and depression. According to the report, the top five physician specialties feeling the most stressed are: 



Percentage of Respondents 

Emergency Medicine 


Critical Care 




Infectious Diseases 


Family Medicine 



As the pandemic enters its third year, it’s no surprise that physicians in emergency medicine, critical care, infectious diseases and family medicine are reporting how overwhelmed they feel. A recent article from The Guardian describes a wave of “compassion fatigue” targeting workers in these specialties. The post goes on to say that treating unvaccinated patients can be especially emotionally exhausting.  

We can use PhysicianView and ClaimsMx to determine the workload of these specialties based on the average number of procedure claims in 2021.  



Number of procedure claims 

Family Medicine 


Emergency Medicine 




Infectious Diseases 


Critical Care 



While being overworked contributes to physician burnout, it’s not the only factor. In fact, it’s not even the primary concern held among doctors and medical students.  

The 3 biggest reasons physicians are burning out 

Currently, three of the greatest concerns shared among practicing physicians and medical students entering the workforce are: 

  1. Too many bureaucratic/administrative tasks 

  1. A poor work-life balance 

  1. Insufficient salary 

1. Too many administrative tasks 

Electronic health records (EHRs) are vitally important tools in healthcare. These systems are designed to improve communication and patient outcomes by cutting down on unnecessary paperwork and streamlining administrative tasks. 

Many providers, however, say that more work needs to be done to reduce the hours spent charting, documenting and dealing with reports. Too many bureaucratic tasks topped Medscape’s Physician Burnout & Depression Report. About 60% of respondents said it is the primary cause of their burnout.  

From the report, we can see that the specialties discussed above are also among the top specialties spending the most amount of time on paperwork.  


2. Poor work-life balance 

Physicians don’t have a lot of free time and for many doctors, working long hours is the norm. In fact, the average physician works about 16 hours longer per week than the average employee in the U.S.  

We can use average weekly work rates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to compare how many hours physicians work each week compared to other positions prone to burnout.  

From the chart, we can see physicians are ranked second, working an average of 51 hours per week.  


Working long hours each week can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. About 48% of physicians felt burned out after working 51 – 60 hours a week. This percentage, however, rises with the number of hours they work each week. This could result in a lack of quality sleep, more frequent errors, and poor patient relationships and satisfaction. 

3. Insufficient salary 

About 28% of respondents to Medscape’s poll felt they weren’t being paid enough and indicated that their insufficient salary was a cause behind their burnout. In a similar poll, about 37% said increased compensation would help avoid feelings of fatigue and financial stress.  

By using Definitive Healthcare data, we can see that hospitals are actually spending more money to hire and retain healthcare workers than ever before. 

Growth in hospital salary expenses from 2016 – 2020 


Financial data for the hospital cost report is from October 2021 Medicare Cost Report

This information could mean that while physician salaries may have increased over the last few years, not all specialties have seen growth. Specialties like plastic surgery for example likely suffered decreased salaries because elective surgeries were postponed for months due to the pandemic. Other specialties like dermatology and endocrinology may also have been negatively affected as patients looked for alternative care settings to diagnose and treat their conditions.  

Solutions to address burnout and the staffing shortage are underway 

Alongside an aging, growing population of patients and providers, physician burnout is an immediate concern behind the provider staffing shortage impacting the healthcare ecosystem.  

Fortunately, new strategies to manage or even solve the staffing shortage are in development. Many are actively discussed in Congress today. Be sure to come back next week as we look into some of these specific solutions.  

Looking for more tips and strategies to identify quality candidates in a staffing shortage? Check out our latest webinar. 

Healthcare commercial intelligence can help hospitals and other healthcare organizations make strategic decisions on hiring, recruiting and technology to address and reduce the costly impact of burnout. Interested in learning more? Start a free trial today.   

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