Burnout and Stress of Today: How Do We Cope?

Douglas A. Paauw, MD


August 11, 2022

As I prepared to write my monthly column, I came across the statistic that 23% of physicians and 40% of nurses plan to leave their practices in the next 2 years.[1]

Interestingly, the group that seems to be least impacted by this was health care administrators (with 12% of them planning on leaving their jobs).

Douglas A. Paauw, MD

I couldn’t stop thinking about these percentages.

I am reminded every day of the commitment and excellence of my colleagues in the health care field, and I do not want to lose them. I am hoping the following information and my thoughts on this topic will be helpful for those thinking about leaving health care.

Surgeon general’s burnout report

The surgeon general recently released a report on addressing health care worker burnout.[2] It includes several very interesting and appropriate observations. I will summarize the most important ones here:

  1. Our health depends on the well-being of our health workforce.

  2. Direct harm to health care workers can lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and interpersonal and relationship struggles.

  3. Health care workers experience exhaustion from providing overwhelming care and empathy.

  4. Health care workers spend less time with patients and too much time with EHRs.

  5. There are health workforce shortages.

The report is comprehensive, and everything in it is correct. The real issue is how does it go from being a report to true actionable items that we as health care professionals benefit from? I think in regards to exhaustion from overwhelming care responsibilities, and empathy fatigue, we need better boundaries.

Those who go into medicine, and especially those who go into primary care, always put the patients’ needs first. When operating in a broken system, it stays broken when individuals cover for the deficiencies in the system. Adding four extra patients every day because there is no one to refer them to with availability is injurious to the health care provider, and those providers who accept these additional patients will eventually be part of the 23% who want to leave their jobs. It feels awful to say no, but until the system stops accommodating there will not be substantial change.

The empathy drain

One of the unreported stresses of open access for patients through EHR communications is the empathy drain on physicians. When I see a patient in clinic with chronic symptoms or issues, I spend important time making sure we have a plan and an agreed upon time frame.

With the EHR, patients frequently send multiple messages for the same symptoms between visits. It is okay to redirect the patient and share that these issues will be discussed at length at appointments. My reasoning on this is that I think it is better for me to better care for myself and stay as the doctor for my patients, than always say yes to limitless needs and soon be looking for the off ramp.

The following statistic in the surgeon general’s report really hit home. For every hour of direct patient care, physicians currently spend 2 hours on the EHR system. Most practices allow 10%-20% of time for catch up, where with statistics like this it should be 50%. This concept is fully lost on administrators, or ignored.

It is only when we refuse to continue to accept and follow a broken system that it will change. A minority of internal medicine and family doctors (4.5% in 2018) practice in direct primary care models, where these issues are addressed. Unfortunately, this model as it is currently available is not an option for lower income patients.

A major theme in the surgeon general’s report was that administrative burdens need to be reduced by 75% by 2025. When I look at the report, I see the suggestions, I just don’t see how it will be achieved. Despite almost all clinics moving to the EHR, paperwork in the form of faxes and forms has increased.

A sweeping reform would be needed to eliminate daily faxes from PT offices, visiting nurse services, prior authorization, patients reminders from insurance companies, and disability forms from patients. I am glad that there is acknowledgment of the problem, but this change will take more than 3 years.


So what do we do?

Be good to yourself, and your colleagues. The pandemic has isolated us, which accelerates burnout.

Reach out to people you care about.

We are all feeling this. Set boundaries that allow you to care for yourself, and accept that you are doing your best, even if you can’t meet the needs of all your patients all the time.

Dr. Paauw is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he serves as third-year medical student clerkship director at the University of Washington. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News. Dr. Paauw has no conflicts to disclose. Contact him at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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