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General surgeons suffer from high rate of burnout

According to a recent survey, general surgeons experience high levels of career related burnout, due mainly to long working hours and a large number of bureaucratic tasks. Though the survey provides an important look at the day-to-day lives of many surgeons, it also raises concerns for patients. Indeed, some experts are concerned that the high level of burnout among surgeons could cause serious medical errors.

The survey, conducted by the website Medscape.com, solicited responses from just over 24,000 doctors in the U.S. Researchers asked for responses from doctors in 25 different areas of specialty, including surgeons and gastroenterologists. The majority of those doctors responding were board certified.

Overall, 42 percent of general surgeons reported experiencing work related burnout. For the purposes of the survey, burnout was defined generally as a low sense of personal accomplishment or loss of enthusiasm for work. These numbers, collected just this year, are similar to other studies conducted in 2012, which found that nearly 46 percent of all physicians experience similar feelings of burnout.

Doctors who specialize in surgery reported some of the highest burnout percentages of any specialty. Emergency and critical care physicians, however, reported the highest burnout percentages at 52 and 50 percent, respectively. For physicians in these specialties, long hours at work, followed by long hours completing patient charts add up to stress and exhaustion over time.

The medical culture is to blame for how many doctors feel about their work. As medical students, doctors learn to see working to the point of exhaustion as a badge of honor and even an indication of status. The busier a doctor is, the more valuable his services.

Unfortunately, in some cases, a doctor's exhaustion is not simply a matter of career dissatisfaction. Indeed, it can also have a negative impact on patient care. Indeed, several recent studies have linked a higher incidence of medical errors to physician fatigue, particularly among surgical residents. These studies have added fodder to ongoing debates regarding the safety and sustainability of current residency programs in the U.S. and elsewhere.

It is difficult to determine the best way to respond to survey results about physician fatigue. Critics suggest that surveys such as these are not particularly useful because they do not provide objective results. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the medical profession will need to develop an approach to these issues, if not for career purposes, then for the safety of patients.

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