Addressing Burnout in Patients with Chronic Conditions

Burnout—a form of exhaustion that results from prolonged stress—is often associated with an individual’s occupation, such as the healthcare profession. However, according to Samuel Merritt University’s Adrienne Martinez-Hollingsworth, PhD, burnout can affect patients as well as providers. Particularly susceptible to burnout are patients with chronic diseases, which the CDC says affect six out of every 10 adults. 

As described in an article published at WebMD, Martinez-Hollingsworth and her colleagues have developed the “Burnout Dyad Model,” which considers both parties in the physician-patient relationship within the context of burnout and specifically acknowledges the prevalence of the condition in patients. “The unique part about the model is that traditionally, burnout has only been described as an employment-based illness,” Martinez-Hollingsworth explains. “But if you look at what patients of chronic illness go through, there’s a lot of overlapping features, [including] the idea that there’s some kind of long-term exhaustion.”

In the same article, University of Michigan Medical School’s Michael Brenner, MD, says the side effects of burnout for a broad swath of patients, providers and caregivers are undeniable. Better understanding its impact may especially help patients with chronic conditions, he explains.

Martinez-Hollingsworth cites patients with diabetes as an example, emphasizing that the condition affects every decision an individual makes throughout the day, from diet to sleep to exercise. “To pretend that [managing diabetes] is any less fatiguing than treating diabetes, which is also exhausting for providers, to me seems like a very simplified view,” she says. Recognizing this may help physicians better connect with their patients, build trust and improve compliance with treatment plans.

To support patients who may be burnt out by stress caused by chronic health conditions, the NIH offers the following guidance:

  • Provide a clear explanation of your patient’s diagnosis.
  • Empathize with patients’ sadness or frustration related to the condition and consider referring them to community resources that may be helpful.
  • Be receptive to questions and know that patients may hesitate to ask questions even if they want more information. Consider how you can make more information available, even if patients don’t specifically ask for it.
  • Provide information through various channels, such as brochures, videos, websites and support groups.
  • Urge patients and/or caregivers to take notes by offering them a pen and paper.
  • Confirm patient understanding by asking them to repeat care instructions.
  • Be encouraging and reinforce treatment and lifestyle changes.

MLMIC also encourages our policyholders to explore some of our existing resources on this topic, including our Risk Management Tip on managing patients with chronic pain