ANESTHESIOLOGIST BURNOUT

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

Regarding anesthesiologist burnout: What if I told you 50% of physician anesthesiology trainees suffer burnout, and those trainees average $220,000 in educational debt by the age of 32? 

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used the term to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in helping professions such as doctors and nurses, who sacrifice themselves for others.

The symptoms of physician burnout are recognized as: 

  • Exhaustion
  • Emotional detachment, i.e. feeling alone in the world
  • Self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Our specialty’s premiere journal Anesthesiology recently published a study by Dr. H. Sun titled, “Repeated Cross-sectional Surveys of Burnout, Distress, and Depression among Anesthesiology Residents and First-year Graduates.” The study reported that “Based on survey data from 2013 to 2016, the prevalence of burnout, distress, and depression in anesthesiology residents and first-year graduates was 51%, 32%, and 12%, respectively. More hours worked and student debt were associated with a higher risk of distress and depression, but not burnout. Perceived institutional and social support and work-life balance were associated with a lower risk of burnout, distress, and depression.”

I completed two residencies in the 1980s at Stanford University Hospital, the first in internal medicine and the second in anesthesiology. The internal medicine residency required 100-hour weeks of service. I worked 30-hour shifts in the hospital every third night on most rotations, without a day off afterwards. The anesthesia residency was 80 hours per week with in-hospital night call.

Were residents burned out in the 1980s? I believe they were, but no one was publishing data on burnout then. Fellow residents I knew committed suicide, became addicted to fentanyl and overdosed, or dropped out of their residencies. We had a battlefield mentality—everyone was stressed, but we marched onward with the goal of finishing our training and entering the early career years. The plot of a popular 1970s medical novel, The House of God by Samuel Shem, involved a cohort of Boston medical interns who had burnout symptoms, and began to cynically dislike their patients and their own lives. In the end these young doctors dropped out of their internal medicine residencies to join cushier specialties such as radiology, dermatology, pathology, ophthalmology, and (gasp) anesthesiology. 

Now we learn that anesthesiology residents have a 50% incidence of burnout. In the Sun study the mean physician age was 32 years, the mean number of hours worked per week was 61, the mean number of night calls/night shifts per month was 5, and 37% of the doctors were females. Females were more likely than males to suffer from burnout (54% vs. 49%, P = 0.002). Seventy-eight percent of the respondents reported having student loan debt, with a median amount of $220,000. 

In 1980 I graduated from the University of Chicago School of Medicine with $23,000 in student debt. In 1984 the average debt for students who graduated from a private medical school was $27,000. Per Consumer Price Index data, $1 in 1980 equaled $3.11 in 2019. Adjusting for inflation, the average student debt from 1984 calculates to $83,970 in 2019 dollars, or roughly 40% of what today’s students are borrowing.  

Among medical specialties studied, anesthesiology has a higher rate of burnout (approximately 48%) than the all-physician average (46%).  Anesthesiology ranks seventh on the list of burnout by specialty, with emergency medicine, internal medicine, neurology, and family medicine having the four highest rates.  

Medical school application rates remain high. In 2019 there were 849,678 applications to U.S. medical schools, and 21,622 students matriculated. The average student applied to 16 schools. It’s terrific that bright students are still interested in becoming physicians. Are they driving themselves toward the twin brick walls of physician burnout and six-figure educational debt? Yes, many of them are.  

The current political healthcare debate includes the prospect of Medicare for All. How would Medicare for All affect anesthesiology? Medicare pays anesthesiologists approximately 20% of what commercial insurance pays anesthesiologists. If Medicare for All ever becomes a reality, those young anesthesiologists who already own $220,000 in student debt will see their income plummet. Paying off their debt will take significantly longer, adding stress to an already stressed young physician’s life. 

If you’re a patient reading this, you might wonder how all this might affect you. Consider this: we all want our doctors to be emotionally and physically healthy. We all want our caretakers to be content, well-reimbursed, non-burned out professionals rather than stressed-out MDs in chronic debt. 

What can be done about physician burnout? Per the Sun article, “Perceived institutional and social support and work-life balance were associated with a lower risk of burnout, distress, and depression,” and “those who believed they maintained an appropriate balance between personal and professional lives and who were satisfied with the level, accessibility, and acceptability of workplace resources were much less likely to suffer from burnout, distress, and depression.” Stanford Medical Center recently hired Tait Shanafelt MD as their first Chief Wellness Officer, in an effort to provide programs with a supportive medical center environment for Stanford physicians. 

I still recommend a career path toward medical school for motivated and qualified students, with these reservations: 

1. It’s important that your medical school and your residency training program have intact resources to support psychologically stressed/burned out/depressed enrollees; and 

2. You need to carefully examine your projected economic stress, i.e. the debt you will incur in your medical training vis-à-vis your expected income in the medical specialty you hope to enter.   

Anticipate psychological stress and debt in your medical training. You’ll need to be well informed and supported in your journey to become a physician in 21st Century America.

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The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:
How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?
Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?
Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?
What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?
How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?
Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?
What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?
The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:
10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia
Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?
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Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?
Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams
What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?


LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW:

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MEDICARE FOR ALL and Anesthesiology

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

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Multiple Democratic candidates for President of the United States are advocating Medicare for All. Medicare for All would decimate the specialty of physician anesthesiologists in America. Medicare for All would cause an exodus from the specialty of anesthesiology.

I’m an independent voter—neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and this column is not in opposition to Democratic candidates or in any way supportive to a Republican agenda. My aim is to inform my readers, both anesthesia professionals and laypersons, that if Medicare for All becomes reality, there will be a dire consequence regarding anesthesia staffing and services to patients.

The Medicare pay rate for anesthesiologists is a mere fraction of the current insurance pay rate. Based on the 2018 American Society of Anesthesiologists report, the national average insured conversion factor for anesthesia (the amount paid for a 15-minute time period of service) was $76.32. The current national Medicare conversion factor for anesthesia is $22.18, or only 29% of the 2018 overall mean commercial conversion factor.

Anesthesia practices have varying ratios of insured patients, Medicare patients, Medicaid patients (which pay slightly less than Medicare), and patients with no insurance (who often pay zero). What happens if every anesthesia patient pays only Medicare rates in a Medicare for All future? Let’s look at some examples.

If a practice currently has 75% insured patients and 25% Medicare/Medicaid patients, the income for that practice would be (.75 X $76) + (.25 X $22) = $62.50 per unit. Under Medicare for All, their income would be $22.18 per unit. This is a pay cut of $40.32 per unit, or a decrease in pay to 35% of their prior income.

If a practice currently has 50% insured patients and 50% Medicare/Medicaid patients, the income for that practice would be (.50 X $76) + (.50 X $22) = $49 per unit. Under Medicare for All, their income would be would be $22.18 per unit. This is a pay cut of $26.82 per unit, or a decrease in pay to 45% of their prior income.

If a plumber, an accountant, a truck driver, an attorney, or a fast-food worker was forced to take a pay cut to 35%-45% of their previous income, they would be upset. Would they be looking for another career? Probably.

If a physician anesthesiologist is forced to take a pay cut to 35%-45% of their previous income, they will be upset too. Will they be looking for another career? Probably.

Expect the exodus from physician anesthesiology to look like this:

  • Older anesthesiologists would simply retire, rather than work for 35%-45% of their prior income.
  • Medical students who are evaluating different specialties for their lifetime vocation would look at anesthesiology and flee. Even prior to its arrival, it’s possible that the specter of Medicare for All in the near future will drive students away from careers in anesthesiology. Medicare pay rates for anesthesiology are significantly lower than Medicare pay rates for all other specialties. See the graph below, which shows the ratio of commercial pay rates/Medicare rates for various services. For most medical services, the ratio of the average insured payment/Medicare payment is between 1.0 and 2.0. This means that, at the lowest, the average Medicare rates are about 50% of insured rates. You’ll recall that the Medicare anesthesia rate is only 29.1% of insured rates.

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The declining number of the oldest and the youngest physician anesthesiologists would radically decrease the census of anesthesiologists in the United States. This likely would lead to an increased role for certified nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and an eventual increase in the number of schools training CRNAs, but in the short term there would be no way to staff adequate numbers of anesthesia professionals. It’s possible the U.S. may increase immigration of anesthesiologists from other countries where, their pay rate is less than the new Medicare for All pay rate is in America.

Might Medicare for All be forced to quickly increase anesthesiology payment rates to secure an adequate number of physician anesthesiologists? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Medicare has always been a zero-sum system. If anesthesiologists are going to be paid more, then someone else would be paid less, and it would be hard to predict which specialties would be on the end of that further pay cut.

But take a deep breath and relax. Medicare for All will be debated for some time. Even if a liberal Democrat wins the presidency and Congress gains a majority of Democrats in both the Senate and the House, they will all have to overcome multiple powerful lobbies, including the medical insurance industry, hospitals, the pharmacology industry, and organized physician groups. Currently there are so many jobs and so much money involved in the health care systems in American that the battle of Medicare for All will be a true war. Patients would have a significant transition as well. David Brooks wrote in The New York Times on March 4, 2019, “Right now, roughly 181 million Americans receive health insurance through employers. About 70 percent of these people say they are happy with their coverage. Proponents of Medicare for All are saying: We’re going to take away the insurance you have and are happy with, and we’re going to replace it with a new system you haven’t experienced yet because, trust us, we’re the federal government!”

If you’re a layperson, you may think Anesthesiologists are overpaid right now, that’s the true problem with what you’re discussing in this column. Keep in mind that anesthesiologists must complete four years of college, four years of medical school, and at least four years of post-medical school internship and residency training to become board-eligible for work as a physician anesthesiologist. LINK. This means they are at a minimum 30 years old, have borrowed hundreds of thousands in student loans to pay for their training, and have endured significant delayed gratification compared to others they went to college with. Procedural specialties such as surgery and anesthesiology are higher paying than primary care specialties such as internal medicine or pediatrics. Why? The work of procedural physicians requires specialized skills, and their work incurs more risk than interviewing and examining patients in a clinic. I have worked as both an internal medicine doctor and an anesthesiologist, and I can attest that it is almost impossible to harm a patient in an internal medicine clinic, while it is possible to lose a patient to anoxic brain damage in five minutes in an operating room as an anesthesiologist if you err. Risk during an anesthesia career is omnipresent.

As I stated on the home page of my blog, “The profession of medicine offers a lifetime of fascination, and no specialty is more fascinating than anesthesiology.” In addition, freeing patients from pain and ushering them through surgery safely is a wonderful vocation. But if anesthesiology jobs someday pay 35%-45% of their current income, the exodus of anesthesiologists will occur despite the fascination and emotional rewards of the profession.

Life will go on, there will just be less anesthesiologists, which will be OK unless you need one for your upcoming surgery.

Further information on proposed Medicare for All is available at their home page at http://www.medicareforall.org/pages/Know.

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The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW:

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