Excessive Burnout Seen in Diagnostic Radiologists

Diagnostic radiologists experience the highest burnout rate among all healthcare workers. Dr. Bradley Spieler, Vice-Chair of Scholarly Activity and Research at the Department of Radiology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, and Dr. Neil Baum, of Tulane’s Department of Urology, co-authored the review. Their review noted that more than half of all healthcare workers experience burnout, but diagnostic radiologists experience the highest burnout rate.

Seventy-one percent (71%) of radiology practice leaders experienced stress from workplace factors. The co-authors examined the causes — but, more importantly, reported the biological effects. They concluded that the risk factors for burnout were significant for radiologists, and they discussed the importance of recognition and potential solutions. Their review was published online in Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology.

Burnout Definition and its Causes

Burnout is so significant that it has a current procedural terminology (CPT). Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually due to prolonged stress or frustration,” resulting in physical and mental fatigue.

Burnout includes faster aging of DNA — a 2019 study showed that first-year residents’ DNA aged six times faster than for non-physicians who are first-year medical students, with the largest aging in those whose training programs required the longest hours. There is a possible association to telomeres, the end of chromosomes. These “caps” keep the ends of the chromosome from becoming frazzled, frayed, or damaged. As telomeres become shorter, the cell senses how old it is and self-limits how many more times it can reproduce without losing its critical DNA material. Telomere destruction is linked to aging and diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness, and it may also be linked to Alzheimer’s. Other studies of telomeres show a correlation between the link of telomeres and the number of hours worked.

There are several risk factors for burnout that affect diagnostic radiologists more specifically:

  • They often work in darkened rooms while evaluating studies
  • Their job is often sedentary
  • Diagnostic radiologists experience prolonged stationary positioning, resulting in lower back pain and tenosynovitis
  • The nature of their professional fosters social isolation because of limited face-to-face interaction with referring clinicians
  • Self-imposed physical isolation to minimize interruptions contributes to social isolation and has been worsened by the pandemic

Ways to Reduce Burnout

Spieler adds, “Radiology leadership must address burnout like the public health crisis it is.”

Possible methods to help reduce burnout include:

  • Concrete ideas to help foster engagement and support from co-workers
  • A dedicated reading room assistant
  • Minimize distractions
  • Improve ergonomics
  • Implement mindfulness techniques

Radiology leadership has a good arsenal of tools available to help screen and help prevent burnout. Resources consist of:

  1. The Well-Being Index
  2. An anonymous online self-assessment tool
  3. The American College of Radiology’s Well-Being Program
  4. The Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience

Addressing burnout as a real and urgent problem helps safeguard not only physician fulfillment but also ensure optimal patient care.