The Crisis of Physician Burnout During COVID-19

The past year and a half have been incredibly challenging for everyone, but especially for those at the forefront of the pandemic. Physicians have cared for patients throughout the healthcare crisis, putting themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19 and dealing with a lack of resources and staff, all while taking care of — or in many cases, neglecting — their own mental health. 

The impact of the pandemic on physicians

A new survey from The Physician’s Foundation found that

  • 57% of physicians have had feelings of anger, tearfulness or anxiety because of COVID-19.
  • 46% have withdrawn or isolated themselves from others.
  • 34% have felt hopeless or without a purpose.
  • 61% experienced feelings of burnout, an increase from 40% in 2018. 

Even more devastating is the finding that 20% of physicians know another provider who has considered, attempted or died by suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, only 14% of physicians report seeking help for their mental health symptoms. “We train to care for people, but we didn’t necessarily train for this. It has exceeded our threshold for many of us to control it, to manage it,” says Dr. Mark Greenawald, who runs a platform for doctor peer support.

How patients perceive physician burnout

“We’re overdue for prioritizing the clinician experience,” notes a study in Wheel, a company which published research on the impact of burnout on patients. Wheel found that 80% of the 2,000 patients surveyed noticed their doctor was burned out. The respondents said that their healthcare provider was stressed and exhausted, and 70% of respondents were alarmed by it. “[Patients] may not label it as a burnout,” Greenawald says. “Rather something like, ‘My physician doesn’t listen to me.’”

What to do about physician burnout

The issue of physician burnout and mental health requires both immediate action (to protect providers currently practicing) and also long-term thinking (to implement better systems that don’t leave physicians feeling hopeless and alone). Caring for mental health is an ongoing process. Physicians say that confidential therapy and evidence-based professional training are the most important strategies for addressing the mental health crisis among providers. 

That said, there are some steps that physicians can take to improve their mental wellbeing as they continue to navigate COVID-19.

Dr. Rebekah Bernard, a family physician in Florida, recommends the following:

  • Accept that having negative feelings and emotions is normal. 
  • Pay attention to your emotions.
  • Ask yourself how you want to feel, and practice cognitive reframing.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Know that you’re not alone and that distress can get better.

For physicians in distress, the Physician Support Line is a confidential way to talk to a psychiatrist immediately. The free hotline offers supportive therapy to help healthcare employees manage stress that is or is not linked to the pandemic. Services are available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time by calling 1-888-409-0141. No appointment is necessary.

We also encourage physicians to visit MLMIC’s own list: strategies for managing mental health problems caused by the pandemic. MLMIC has assembled a number of critical resources to support New York physicians navigating the COVID-19 public health crisis. This information, which includes the latest developments in medicine and government, can be accessed on our website.