Physician Burnout Climbing! (And This Is A Surprise?)

JMCP_v90_i12_COVER.inddA recent study about doctors was published and made a big splash in the medical field and later the general media. This study, from the Mayo Clinic Department of Internal Medicine, was published in the December 2015 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.  A national survey was performed 2014 across multiple specialties and practice settings and was then compared to a similar survey in 2011.

To summarize, professional burnout among American physicians had increased 10% over the 3 years of the study, reaching 55% levels.  Even though the number of hours worked by US doctors had not increased over that period, burnout and dissatisfaction with their work-life balance had increased significantly.

Compare these findings to the general population.  Working adults in all other career fields besides medicine showed only minimal changes in burnout symptoms and work-life dissatisfaction over that 3-year period, holding steady at about 28%.

Specifically, from questions within the survey, doctors showed high scores for emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.  Personal accomplishment alone, on the other hand, earned low scores.

burnout60% of doctors felt that they did not have sufficient time for personal and family life.  There was no change in the rates of suicidal ideation, but the number still stood at a relatively alarming 6.4%.

Not surprising, burnout rates in primary care and family medicine were among the highest of all specialties at 63%.  When asked about the causes of their burnout, doctors cited practice inefficiencies, amount of administrative burden, and bureaucratic inflexibility. Unfortunately, most health care organizations from the smallest group to the largest hospital systems depend on physician resilience alone to cope with burnout.

None of these study results are at all surprising to me.  I have experienced many of them myself off and on over the years.

doctor_in_thoughtThe real question is: How did I handle it?  Before I answer that, I want to put forward the observation that people who do not have control over their environment and feel helpless to control their life are more likely to be depressed, anxious and burned-out.

Personally, I feel that the ability to control your practice setting and your finances gives you, as a physician, the emotional power to handle the rigors of medical practice.  Being a doctor has always been a high stress job and not for the faint of heart.

Why are doctors feeling more burnout now? My answer is that they have less control.  Also, despite the fact that doctors certainly make more money in yearly income on average than the general population, they feel that they need to stay on the treadmill of practice to pay the higher bills of their lifestyle.

doctor-before-after-largeWhen I was able to control my income through the practices I developed, a degree of personal and professional freedom pervaded my life.  As one of my old medical mentors counseled me, I managed my professional life such that “they” needed me more than I needed them.

I knew that I could survive on my own if I had to.  I knew that I could pick up and leave my group, my hospital or even my geographic area if I wanted to and still do fine professionally and financially.  That mindset and approach to practice continues to drive me forward.

I think that we as professionals cannot wait for larger health care organizations to make our lives easier or less emotionally exhausting.  That is not their priority.

You need to be the priority for you and your family.  You need to grab the reins.  If you can’t do it in terms of your practice setting, do it in terms of your personal finances and their management.

The Riches Are In Niches

The title of this articleniche, “The Riches Are In Niches”, is from a phrase I heard while listening to CNBC in the background one day in my office.  The on-air discussion at the time was in reference to the stock value of companies.  Specifically, the companies that did one thing very, very well were worth more to investors than companies that did a lot of generic things that could be commoditized.

Unfortunately, for primary care doctors, we have become marginalized as “providers” and frequently referred by insurance companies and hospitals alike as PCPs.  Even if you do your job very well and do an excellent job for your individual patients, you are not worth anything more to your hospital employer and group.

In fact, many primary care doctors are discovering this sad truth for themselves as they are retiring.  Despite the fact that there are fewer doctors going into primary care, these doctors are are being replaced by nurse practitioners or physician assistants, a.k.a. “mid-levels”.

From an economic point of view, the marketplace is saying that your generic medical services are not worth as much as you thought, and that it can be replaced by a lower level provider.  I say this not to demean or insult mid-level providers.

I have met and worked with many mid-level professionals over the years who are very smart and learn by experience.  However, there is a reason that they are mid-level: they have not had the extensiveness of training or the ultimate accountability of the board-certified and credentialed doctor.

Be that as it may, if you take this signal from the marketplace and want to accumulate more income, you must become more valuable.  The medical system reimburses the doctor better who becomes more specialized in his field, or does something specific that few others do.

catheterThis trend happens everywhere in medicine.  For example, the cardiologist that does cardiac catheters is paid better than the office-consulting cardiologist.

How did I implement this philosophy in my internal medicine practice?  I always enjoyed doing procedures during my medical school years, residency, and early practice days.

When my group was growing up to 6 office providers at one point, I noticed that many of my colleagues were referring out procedures that I was performing on my individual panel of patients.  So, I went to each provider and offered to see their patients for the small procedures that they did not do.

It would keep the patient in-house, and I would guarantee that I could get them in my schedule faster than any outside specialist.  As a result, I became the “lumps and bumps” doctor in my group.

My RVUs went through the roof!  Already the most efficient doctor in my office, I was seeing more patients with higher value reimbursements.

Since our income was based on productivity, my income continued to increase while those providers who just kept doing the same old primary care thing stagnated.  There definitely were more riches in that niche.

eye_doctorThe most interesting aspect of being in a niche is that once you are in one, you can see other possibilities to niche down further.  While dealing with a large number of patients for skin procedures in the early 2000’s, I fielded lots of questions about other new procedures in which they were interested, including Botox, fillers and lasers.

While attending continuing medical education on skin procedures, I met other doctors who were essentially doing the same thing.  Over meals and breaks, I brainstormed and found kindred spirits who stimulated my medical entrepreneur side to help me explore these areas further.

To make a long story short, I developed a separate practice on the side and in my spare practice time to do aesthetic procedures, as most of these techniques are not reimbursable by insurance companies.  At first, I was nervous about leaving the insurance world.  Later, I found out that this move was in fact liberating.

Health-insuranceBy going into a cash-only niche,  I didn’t have to fight with insurance companies about medical necessity or delay in reimbursements.  If someone wanted a procedure such as Botox, I would tell them how much that procedure would cost, and that person would simply choose to pay the price or not.

By niching down, I became more valuable to the marketplace.  By eventually shedding the health insurance handcuffs,  I was able to be reimbursed for more of what I was doing, and not be obligated to pay for overhead to get the money I am owed.

I am living proof that the riches are in the niches.  As a result, I can control my own destiny, and it is one of the best professional steps I have ever taken!