Survey Documents Doctor Burnout in Canada

Published October 1, 2003

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) warns “an alarming number of Canadian doctors are so exhausted, cynical, and stressed out that they are suffering from advanced stages of burnout.”

About 2,250 doctors responded to more than 8,000 questionnaires the CMA distributed among its 55,000 members between February and June 2003. The survey results, recently released to the Winnipeg media, add to growing concern physicians are ignoring their own health advice, pushing themselves too hard and failing to seek treatment for illnesses.

Among those responding, the survey found 46 percent suffering from burnout. Researchers evaluating the survey results noted that is only slightly worse than in the general population, but they also expressed concern about some disturbing comments doctors added on their own.

According to the CMA, one doctor wrote, “I’m silently burning out inside, and finding work less rewarding. I would quit medicine, but I’m trapped.”

CMA President Dr. Dana Hanson suggested a major source of frustration for doctors has been watching the degradation of the Canadian single-payer health care system. Hanson said, “Often times we are there at the front lines, trying to make up for deficiencies in a system where we’re not even asked how we might do that, or change it. So those are the sorts of feelings of frustration that eventually build up.”

Karen Palmer, public health reporter for the Toronto Star, writes the survey shows doctors are “frustrated by an inflexible, bureaucratic health system that has heaped more patients with more complex problems on fewer physicians.”

Dr. David Gratzer, a Canadian physician and author, writes in Code Blue: Reviving Canada’s Health Care System, “The most important step toward renewing health care in this country is to accept that [single-payer] medicare is fundamentally flawed. As long as politicians cling to the notion that medicare has worked well in the past and that, with the right amount of tinkering, it will work well in the future, these ‘reforms’ have as much hope of succeeding as the alchemists had of making gold from lead.”

Many doctors quietly endure the failings of the single-payer system. Their frustration, says Michael Kaufmann, medical director of the Physician Health Program in Toronto, leads to depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and marital problems. “Those who can’t continue under such conditions,” says Kaufman, “drop out of the profession.”

“There’s a national manpower issue here,” Kaufmann added. “We don’t want to lose doctors, but some are actually choosing to leave medicine because of these feelings. Medicine is a wonderful, honorable, joyous profession, and I see this in the trainees as they graduate. Then I watch their enthusiasm disappear over time. It’s a great tragedy.”

“The collective well-being of the Canadian health care system is inextricably linked to the health of its physicians,” said Hanson. “Many of our interactions with patients are vital and personal and require the best attitude and mental health of the person. We were surprised, very surprised, at the magnitude of these figures. This recent research is only the starting point of much more that needs to be done.”

The CMA says it will devote $50,000 to further study the issue.

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

see “Canadian Health Care Fails Five Ways,” by Dr. David Gratzer, Health Care News, March 2002.