Oncologists in the United States report high levels of career satisfaction, but almost half suffer from one or more symptoms of burnout, according to a survey conducted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.1

The survey, which utilized the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a 22-item questionnaire, found that 38% of oncologists were emotionally exhausted, 25% experienced depersonalization (treating people like objects), and 13% had a low sense of personal accomplishment.

“We wanted to get a sense of how contemporary practice affects overall physician well-being—how our members feel about the profession they’ve chosen, and how they’re functioning in it,” said study author William J. Gradishar, MD, of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

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Although many physicians experience some degree of burnout, long work hours, high patient loads, the need to administer toxic therapy, and constant exposure to suffering and death place oncologists at particularly high risk. Anxiety, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are some of the possible consequences of physician burnout.

A total of 3,000 oncologists were invited to participate in the survey, of whom half responded. Approximately 43% worked in private practice, 34% in academic practice, and the balance in other settings. Those who had been in practice for more than 20 years were more likely to participate in the survey compared with those who had been in practice for less than 10 years.

Burnout Risk Factors

Younger physicians, women, those who were single or childless, and those with a heavy burden of student debt were at high risk of burnout. Per year of age older that a physician was, the risk of burnout was reduced by 4% to 5%.

The number of hours worked per week and the number of hours spent seeing patients also contributed to the risk for burnout. Each additional hour per week spent seeing patients increased the risk of burnout by 2% to 4%.