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Nova Scotia’s physician workforce is at risk of burnout

Sept. 11, 2017

Dartmouth, N.S. – A new survey shows that burnout is a serious issue for Nova Scotia’s doctors.

Of the 372 physicians that responded, 50 percent reported experiencing symptoms of burnout and another 20 percent are feeling ineffective.

Studies indicate that burnout interferes with physicians’ ability to do their work, with negative consequences for quality of care, patient safety and patient satisfaction. They also report that burned out doctors devote less time to providing clinical care to their patients.

“These statistics are a major cause for concern and we need to do something about it immediately,” said Dr. Manoj Vohra, President of Doctors Nova Scotia. “The state of the physician workforce in Nova Scotia at present is fragile. I believe we all have a role to play in getting things on track.”

Compared to a 2008 national sample of physicians by the Canadian Medical Association, the survey findings show Nova Scotia doctors are less engaged and more overextended. They also scored higher on exhaustion and cynicism.

The 2017 survey results were obtained when Doctors Nova Scotia partnered with Dr. Michael Leiter, PhD, and the Centre for Organizational Research and Development at Acadia University to study the work-life issues facing Nova Scotia physicians.

The Physician Burnout Survey measured a range of variables critical to physician well-being, including work engagement, workload and fairness. In the survey results, 70 percent of the physicians who participated reported feeling overextended, disengaged, ineffective and/or fully burned out.

Dr. Leiter’s research found that burnout among Nova Scotia physicians is systemic and related to the basic organization of work, which is outside of the physicians’ control, rather than to personal failings regarding inadequate self-care or poor work practices. Contributing factors included administrative hassles, financial concerns, uncompensated work, billing problems and constraints on physician autonomy.

“Our province is already experiencing a physician shortage and these systemic issues will make it even more difficult to attract and retain doctors,” says Dr. Vohra.

Thirty percent of the doctors who participated reported perceiving a lack of respect for their professional expertise and autonomy from government and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, which is leading to feelings of cynicism and low efficacy.

“Physicians enter the practice of medicine because they feel they are called to help people,” said Dr. Vohra. “Being a doctor is not a career, it’s a vocation. Physicians want to care for our patients rather than dealing with these systemic issues.”

Dr. Leiter concluded that the root cause of much of the burnout, and therefore the most effective way to address it, is by improving the challenging relationship between physicians and the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

Doctors Nova Scotia is taking action to address burnout and work dissatisfaction among the province’s physicians.

In addition to its work to restore a positive and productive relationship between Doctors Nova Scotia, government and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, the association will provide more support to physicians in local communities.

“We’ve reorganized our work so that we can offer more on-the-ground support to physicians in communities across the province,” said Dr. Vohra.

Starting this fall, doctors in each zone of the province will have a dedicated Doctors Nova Scotia representative in their community. These representatives will provide practice supports and will help doctors connect with each other, navigate the system, influence decisions in their communities and work with Nova Scotia Health Authority recruiters to enhance recruitment efforts. They will also link doctors with the resources and supports available at Doctors Nova Scotia.

In addition, the association will work with the Section of Primary Care Physicians Representative Council and other physician leaders through the Physician Leadership and Development Program to address the causes of burnout. 

“The physician workforce in Nova Scotia is at risk. It’s time for action,” said Dr. Vohra.

Barb Johnson

The full survey is available here.