New Study Shows Doctors Suffering from Burnout Are More Prone to Racial Bias

Burnout is fairly common in the healthcare industry. In fact, 54% of doctors report feeling burnt out and 63% of nurses say their work has led to nurse burnout. But all that stress and fatigue can have unintended consequences, most notably an increase in racial bias.

A new study shows doctors and healthcare providers suffering from burnout may be more prone to racial bias, including implicit and explicit bias and discrimination. But the effects of burnout and racial bias in healthcare are far reaching, leading to costly errors and negative outcomes for patients.

Find out how these two issues are related and what can be done to combat the problem.

How Burnout Can Lead to Racial Bias

A new study by the Mayo Clinic interviewed 3,392 second-year resident physicians who self-identified as non-black. The results show that as symptoms of burnout increase, the residents became more prone to racial bias.

Once the residents’ burnout levels were recorded, the participants were asked about their explicit attitudes towards white and black people. Their feelings were measured by a feeling thermometer (from 0 to 100 points, ranging from very cold or unfavorable [lowest score] to very warm or favorable [highest score]). They were then asked to sort pictures of people of different races along with words like “beautiful,” “cheerful,” “failure,” “scorn”. Researchers also measured how quickly they linked favorable traits to black or white faces.

As burnout increased, residents showed increasing disparity in terms of their feelings toward white and black people. But as burnout decreased over time, so did explicit racial bias.

However, the study did not say whether burnout caused racial bias among physicians. It may be that physicians with explicit or implicit bias are more susceptible to burnout.

Signs of Burnout and How to Combat It

Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of efficacy. Signs of burnout among physicians include emotional exhaustion, cynicism, a lack of enthusiasm and joy in their work, and a feeling of detachment from their patients and their ailments. When suffering from burnout, doctors and healthcare providers may resort to prejudice and personal bias when treating a patient’s symptoms and responding to their individual concerns.

Burnout can also be linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide. The suicide rate for physicians is twice that of the general population.

Not taking breaks, working long hours, and bureaucratic tasks such as filling out electronic health records can lead to an increase in burnout among healthcare providers.

To combat burnout, healthcare providers should feel comfortable coming forward with their symptoms so they can address the problem. Solutions should be tailored to individual departments and units. Managers and workplace leaders should promote self-care and create a sense of community among their employees, so coworkers can solve problems together and support each other during stressful situations.

The Dangers of Burnout and Patient Discrimination

As burnout increases among doctors and healthcare providers, more may decide to leave the profession. The industry is already suffering from a nursing and primary care provider shortage, and burnout may only make matters worse.

Doctors suffering from burnout are also twice as likely to record a major medical error, which can be detrimental to patients’ health.

Racial and other forms of bias can also be detrimental to patients. African American patients are routinely undertreated for pain compared to white patients due to false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. This means doctors may be more hesitant to prescribe pain medications to African American patients. African American women are 3-4x more likely to die of pregnancy- and birth-related complications than white women.

In addition to these concerns, burnout is expensive. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that burnout is costing the healthcare industry as much as $4.6 billion a year.

Healthcare facilities need to address the problem of burnout as a way of reducing the rate of racial bias, costly medical errors, and staffing shortages. Everyone should feel comfortable talking about the effects of burnout and how to relieve stress and fatigue in the workplace.

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