images of x-rays with the text "Combatting Radiologist Burnout"

Radiologist Burnout Can Impact Patient Care and Personal Well Being

Reading Time: 5 minutes read

Steps for organizations and individuals to combat burnout in radiology.

By M. G. Myriam Hunink, MD, PhD.

Chronic stress and burnout in radiologists and other healthcare professionals is a serious issue. It can lead not only to diminished health and quality of life among the professionals themselves, but also to concerns about patient safety, quality of care, patient outcomes, professionalism, and sustainability of our healthcare systems.

images of x-rays with the text "Combatting Radiologist Burnout"
Radiologists rank in the top 10 of medical specialists with burnout.

Radiologists rank in the top 10 of medical specialists with burnout, and they are among the most unhappy physicians. For this reason, addressing burnout is one of the top priorities of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) in the US. NAM’s Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience states that, “Clinician burnout can have serious, wide-ranging consequences, from reduced job performance to—in the most extreme cases—medical error and clinician suicide. The ramifications of clinician burnout also extend to patients in measureable ways.” (1) The collaborative, which is focused on all clinicians, is a network of more than 50 organizations committed to reversing trends in clinician burnout. 

What causes burnout in radiology?

Chronic stress and burnout are due to an imbalance between stressors and resources. The list of stressors is long. Some are internal like personal ambition, perfectionism, self-criticism, and lack of self-care.   

External pressures include insufficient staffing, 24/7 electronic connectivity, extended hours, and administrative demands. Another source of anxiety is keeping pace with ongoing technological development, including the potential impact of artificial intelligence on the profession. 

What are the signs of burnout?

Many healthcare professionals experience workplace tension. But how can you tell the difference between stress and burnout? Insomnia, headaches, and anxiety trouble many healthcare professionals. These can negatively affect your health and job performance; however, they are not technically burnout.

The three key symptoms of burnout are physical and emotional exhaustion; a detached, callous, cynical attitude; and a feeling of personal inadequacy. The feelings of inadequacy are more prevalent among women.

The National Academy of Medicine describes burnout as, “a syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (i.e. cynicism) and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work. Burnout is nearly twice as prevalent among physicians as compared to US workers … Medical trainees also experience a high prevalence of burnout and depression as compared to rates of age-similar individuals pursuing other careers.” (2)

Although it is an increasingly common phenomenon, many healthcare professionals do not acknowledge the symptoms of burnout in colleagues or themselves; and they are hesitant to seek help.

A graph that illustrates the factors affecting clinician well-being and resilience.
Addressing burnout is one of the National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) top priorities.

Resources needed: within the organization and the individual

To combat burnout in radiologists, and thereby help improve the quality of patient care, effective interventions are needed at both the organisational and individual levels. Both are important and – ideally – both are in place.

The organization should limit duty and on-call hours, facilitate efficient work processes, and provide opportunities for leadership and professional development. Studies show that autonomous work ­– including time planning – is associated with lower levels of stress, higher work satisfaction and commitment to the workplace. But this flexibility is not always easy to implement in a busy and demanding environment like radiology departments.

Ideally, the work environment also fosters higher-level ideals. I recommend that organizational leaders read the book “Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. In it, the author discusses the essential characteristics of “safety, vulnerability, and meaning” to help build a cohesive, motivated, and more satisfying workplace culture. (3)

Combating radiologist burnout on a personal level

I have been leading a study among students at the Erasmus University Medical Centre Rotterdam to identify successful ways to de-stress. (4)

The methods I recommend are mindfulness meditation, music, aikido, yoga, and running. Mindfulness, by far, is my top recommendation. Several studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing depression, anxiety, and stress; thereby improving quality of life, and physical functioning. (5) The positive benefits are visible in changes in the brain after only 8 weeks of mindfulness training.  Studies show that the amygdala, which is the section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events, becomes less sensitive to stress and less active.  (6) The practice of mindfulness meditation is an effective way to relieve stress, improve well-being, and to focus on what you are doing, which in turn can help you serve your patients better.

Like all health problems, identifying issues of stress and burnout early and taking appropriate actions are key to resolving them. The good news is that preventive measures can be taken that will lead to more active work engagement and improved well-being among radiology professionals. However, it takes a commitment from both the organization and the professional.

What actions do you take to relieve stress and prevent burnout, both on the personal and organizational level? Please share your comments below.

Myriam Hunink, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Radiology, Clinical Epidemiology, Health Decision Sciences at Erasmus MC Rotterdam and Harvard Boston.

Learn More:

Read the blog by a radiologist who uses mindfulness meditation to stay focused and precise.

Get more suggestions for radiologist self care in this blog from ECR 2019.

Read the blog on Radiologic Technologist Burnout written by Radiology Administrator Ron Jones MSRS, RT (R,CT) ARRT

References:

1. National Academy of Medicine https://nam.edu/clinicianwellbeing/about/
2. National Academy of Medicine https://nam.edu/clinicianwellbeing/about/
3. Culture Code by Daniel Coyle http://danielcoyle.com/the-culture-code/
4. http://destress.info/
5. West, Lancet 2016
6. Gotink, Brain and Cognition 2016

COMMENTS

  • July 17, 2019
    reply

    A Radiologist

    The main reason for my burnout during training was the tenured radiologist staff in the hospital. Of course the usual condescending attitude of all senior physicians was there, along with the “I’ll remove you from training if you make one mistake” threat constantly looming over our heads, but there was more.

    We would be required to do menial things like clean the office and prepare their breakfast every day before work, to the point where most of my morning revolved around serving food to the different departments rather than being a radiologist. Then they’d berate their residents for not getting the morning readings done, and for even such trivial matters such as using the wrong conjunctions in readings (e.g. “or” rather than “nor”); punishments varied greatly depending on how much they liked you, from 36-hour shift extensions to being prohibited from reading radiographs for up to a month.

    After everything, they didn’t even teach much; only around a couple out of a dozen of them actually held teaching rounds.

    After all that, it’s no wonder why I couldn’t care less for patients. I didn’t even have the chance to care for myself.

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