Mistreatment Puts Female Doctors at Risk of Burnout
Fri, December 9, 2022

Mistreatment Puts Female Doctors at Risk of Burnout

Females doctors are more prone to burnout because of mistreatment / Photo Credit: Shutterstock


Female doctors provide a style best suited for their patients, which means that they offer better care compared to male counterparts. However, female physicians are also more likely to suffer more mistreatment that leads to burnout and suicidal thoughts, according to a new report from Northwestern Medicine.

Burnout is widespread among medical practitioners, but the new study showed that it is more common among female doctors, specifically surgical residents.

The survey, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that discrimination and harassment were the biggest drivers of burnout among women residents—with gender and racial discrimination coming mostly from patients.


Better care

As the healthcare system continues to evolve, so does the variety of medical practitioners. In Canada, the number of female doctors has grown to 42 percent in 2018 from 11 percent in 1978. Women comprise 47 percent of family physicians—showing how family medicine is growing to become a female-oriented practice.

The increasing number of women in the field should be a good thing, according to family physician Rebecca Renkas. In her article on The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet with content sourced from academics and researchers, Renkas said that female doctors are more likely to practice with a style better suited for their patients based on a growing body of evidence.



"Compared with male physicians, women spend more time with their patients, are more likely to adhere to guidelines, offer more follow-up care and are more careful in their prescribing practices," she wrote. "They’re also more likely to address mental-health concerns and establish collaborative partnerships with their patients."

This leads to patients of women residents having fewer hospitalizations and visits to the emergency room compared to those of male doctors, and this difference is demonstrated in patients with complex medical issues. Renkas said patents of female doctors are more likely to be updated on preventive screening and are more satisfied with their care.

However, the problem comes in the healthcare system, which has yet to change along with the style of female physicians' practice—with consequences beginning to show in the form of depression, burnout, and suicidal thoughts.


The burnout gap

The survey examined symptoms of burnout including "feeling fatigued when you get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job; feeling you’ve become more callous toward people since you began residency; not caring what happens to some patients; treating some patients as if they were impersonal objects," Northwestern Medicine said in a statement.

It added that their study recorded a "striking 99 percent response rate" with an estimated 7,400 doctors from 262 residency programs across the US answering the survey—40 percent of whom are women.

Results show that over 50 percent of all general surgery residents reported experiencing some form of mistreatment (discrimination, abuse, or harassment). Women residents reported events of gender discrimination (65 percent) and sexual harassment (20 percent) against them.

Meanwhile, male doctors experience less of these mistreatments with only 10 percent having experienced gender discrimination and four percent reporting sexual harassment. Women also face more discrimination based on pregnancy or parental status (13 percent) compared to men (four percent), Time magazine reports.



This led to 5.3 percent of them reporting to have suicidal thoughts and 42 percent feeling burnt out compared to 3.9 percent and 36 percent of male surgical residents, respectively.

These results show the significance of on-the-job mistreatment to female doctors feeling burnt out and having suicidal thoughts.

"This is a pretty high percentage of people experiencing mistreatment, and this is detrimental to the development of emotionally healthy surgeons who function effectively. We need them to get the best training to become great doctors," said Karl Bilimoria, director of the Surgical Outcomes and Quality Improvement Center at Northwestern Medicine and senior author of the study.

"We need to improve in each one of these areas."


Improvement is possible

While all of the US residency programs show concerning results, the survey still found that some had low rates of mistreatment events. Bilimoria said this indicates the possibility of improvement, with some programs leading as an example.

The authors note that addressing harassment and mistreatment in the workplace will provide solutions they can act on to resolve the burnout crisis. Not only will these solutions save doctors from harm, but it will also save the healthcare system billions of dollars worth of cost annually.


Female doctors have also experienced gender discrimination that could lead to burnout / Photo Credit: Shutterstock


Bilimoria said they are planning to give residency programs a report showing their performance based on how they address workplace burnout or occurrences of sexual harassment. That report could then be used to focus improvement efforts.

"Programs are not uniformly good or bad," the senior author said. "Just because you have a high rate of sexual harassment doesn’t mean you have a high rate of gender discrimination. Hopefully, giving programs these data will allow them to focus on their weaknesses and really improve."

The medical field is among the progressing industries today, but the study shows that there are still areas in the system with unaddressed issues and the mistreatment of doctors is just one of them. To continue the progress, the healthcare system should keep up with how doctors are performing their practice and respond immediately to any emerging issues before they become deeply rooted in the industry.