National Burnout Trends Among Physicians Working in the Department of Veterans Affairs

BACKGROUND:

Heterogeneity of existing physician burnout studies impairs analyses of longitudinal trends, geographic distribution, and organizational factors impacting physician burnout. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is one of the largest integrated healthcare systems in the USA, offering a unique opportunity to study burnout across VA sites and time.

OBJECTIVE:

To characterize longitudinal burnout trends of VA physicians and assess organizational characteristics and geographic distribution associated with physician burnout.

DESIGN:

Longitudinal study of the VA All Employee Survey during 2013-2017.

PARTICIPANTS:

Self-identified physicians practicing in one of nine clinical service areas at 140 VA sites nationwide.

MAIN MEASURES:

We identified burnout using a validated definition adapted from the Maslach Burnout Inventory and characterized burnout trends for physicians in different clinical service areas. We used clustering analysis to categorize sites based on their burnout rates over time, and compared organizational characteristics and geographic distribution of high, medium, and low burnout categories.

KEY RESULTS:

We identified 40,382 physician responses from 140 VA sites. Mean burnout rates across all physicians ranged from 34.3% in 2013 to a high of 39.0% in 2014. Primary care physicians had the highest burnout. High burnout sites were more likely to be rural and non-teaching, have lower complexity (i.e., offer fewer advanced clinical services), and have fewer unique patients per site.

CONCLUSIONS:

VA physician burnout was lower than previously described in many non-VA studies and was relatively stable over time. These findings may be due to unique characteristics of the VA practice environment. Nonetheless, with over a third of VA physicians reporting burnout, organizational interventions are needed. Primary care physicians and those practicing at small, rural sites have higher rates of burnout and may warrant more focused attention. Our results can guide targeted interventions to promote VA physician well-being and inform efforts to address burnout in diverse clinical settings.