The how’s, why’s, and what to do’s about burnout

Burnout is common in the health care field, with as many as 42 percent of all American physicians reporting symptoms during 2018. But it’s a growing concern in Radiology, which, according to the 2018 Medscape National Physician Burnout and Depression Report, is within the top 10 fields for highest reports of burnout.1 It’s not a problem limited to American radiologists, either. In a study published by the Canadian Association of Radiologists, professionals in this niche reported above average experience with burnout symptoms.

What Is radiologist burnout?

Burnout occurs when someone becomes so emotionally exhausted with their position that they feel a constant decreased sense of accomplishment and motivation. In a health care setting, they may also feel depersonalization, which makes them less likely to face patient issues with an appropriate level of compassion and care.It’s important to note that burnout is not the same thing as being stressed or even tired. Health care workers deal with physical exhaustion and stress on a regular basis; exhaustion may be the standard way a radiologist leaves every shift. But a stressful or tiring day is something you can recover from with rest and self-care. And even during stress or exhaustion, you can still care for patients in a personal, compassionate manner. Burnout is a state that occurs when stress, exhaustion and other factors compound and someone can no longer recover, so they remain in this state. They begin to lose touch with why they became a radiologist to begin with and they may care less and less about the outcome of each case or task.

The impact of radiologist burnout

Burnout can impact a radiologist’s own mental and physical health, which leads to a potential impact on the health of the patient. When someone is experiencing burnout, they may make more errors or not be as productive as needed.1 That leads to potential patient injury or misdiagnosis or cost factors for employers.On top of making errors in patient treatment, burnout can lead individuals to:

  • Engage in unprofessional behavior
  • Contemplate suicide or self-harm
  • Be absent from work more than normal
  • Retire early or change career3

An analysis in Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology4 explored a variety of situations in a series of “case vignettes” it’s notable that although the concept of “burnout” is often attributed to prolonged exposure to work stresses, many times issues can become problematic almost immediately. Let’s explore some of those situations…

Situation 1: Being surrounded by weak leadership

In the first case vignette, the authors introduced “Steve,” a radiologist who had a positive outlook at first. Steve was then asked to lead a committee, however, and the committee didn’t take his opinions seriously. It made him feel powerless, and even when he would complete significant goals for the committee, nobody seemed to be paying attention. He did not feel valuable to the rest of his team.

Steve’s suffering represents a common problem in radiology: poor frontline leadership skills. Communication at Steve’s practice was poor, and he did not receive the proper amount of feedback. “In this vignette, poor communication served to promote a diminished sense of accomplishment in a physician initially engaged and productive demonstrating how lack of leadership training may contribute to physician burnout while depicting burnout as a fluid state, determined to a large degree by external forces,” wrote lead author Nicole Restauri, MD, department of radiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, and colleagues.

So what can be done?

Physicians often receive insufficient, ineffective leadership training, which has a negative impact on all future employees. If Steve’s leaders in the above example had been trained properly, they may have paid more attention to his perspective and praised him for achieving certain goals.

In addition, the authors added, leaders should regularly receive feedback about how they’re doing. When leaders are evaluated regularly, it makes them focus more on their actions. “As ineffective leaders can undermine wellness culture and productivity of a health care organization, regular assessment of leadership performance, productive feedback, and skills training may serve to create a transparent workplace environment that encourages the flow of communication,” the authors wrote.

Situation 2: Feeling isolated

In the second case vignette, the authors introduced “John,” who moved from a small practice where everyone communicated regularly to an academic setting where he rarely interacted with his own colleagues. It didn’t take long for this change to have a negative impact on John; he felt stressed and isolated on a regular basis.

“Increasing isolation played a significant role in developing symptoms of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization as demonstrated by the physician in case vignette 2,” the authors wrote. “The depersonalization component of burnout describes feelings of cynicism or detachment from the job illustrated by sentiments in the earlier scenario describing a perceived inability to impact patient care (cynicism) and a feeling that ‘a machine could do the job,’ indicating detachment.”

So what can be done?

Restauri’s team explained that engagement is key when it comes to dealing with isolation. They also recommend that physicians work to increase their visibility and participation in providing patient care. In addition, leaders can help avoid these negative feelings by reducing clerical work whenever possible. Less paperwork and more time, say, taking part in a multidisciplinary team can boost a radiologist’s morale by a considerable margin.

Combating radiologist burnout

Burnout is something that must be addressed by both individual professionals and the organizations that employ them. Rather than addressing burnout after it occurs, most experts say the best approach is proactive. By learning to recognize symptoms of oncoming burnout and acting to reduce stress and re-engage someone with their job, you can help reduce the instances of burnout in radiology. That supports a consistently more positive outcome for radiology professionals, their patients and health care organizations.

Facilities can reduce burnout by:

  • Supporting strong teams that ensure regular interaction and support between health care professionals
  • Aligning radiologists with appropriate work by ensuring professionals are given work they enjoy as much as possible and avoiding scenarios where individuals are relied upon in areas they may not be certified or skilled in
  • Reducing administration time that can take away a radiologist’s ability to truly impact patient care
  • Developing proactive assessment methods that allow caring leadership to determine when a health care professional may be struggling and offer appropriate assistance

A radiologist can reduce their own chance of burnout by:
  • Developing strong self-care habits that help them recover regularly from physical, mental and emotional stressors
  • Taking time off during the year for vacation or personal days
  • Revisiting their reason for entering the field to regularly contemplate the good work they are doing and why they want to do it
  • Working with others to create a positive team culture that helps all health care professionals avoid burnout and deliver excellent patient care

In conclusion, the field of Radiology is not a necessarily a path to burnout, but given the stresses and situations that are prevalent, it’s essential that you have a solid foundation by which to work from if you desire to have longevity in your field. Know the warning signs and act proactively to deal with the BEFORE they effect your ability to do your job.

1. Deborah Abrams Kaplan. “Stop Burnout in Radiology Before It Starts.” Diagnostic Imaging. 27 February 2018. Web. 21 December 2018. <>. 2. N. Zha, et. al. “Prevalence of Burnout Among Canadian Radiologists and Radiology Trainees.” Canadian Association of Radiologists. November 2018.  Web. 21 December 2018. <>. 3. J.A. Harolds, et. al. “Burnout of Radiologists: Frequency, Risk Factors, and Remedies: A Report of the ACR Commission on Human Resources.” Journal of the American College of Radiology. April 2016. Web. 21 December 2018. <>. 4. Volume 44, Issue 5, September–October 2015, Pages 389-390


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