How this group of women in medicine is fighting physician burnout through evidence-based solutions

by David Buice | November 15, 2019

In a field once limited almost exclusively to male practitioners, female physicians can now be found working and excelling in all fields of medicine. In fact, in 2017, women comprised a slight majority (51.6 percent versus 50.7 percent) of the new enrollees in American medical schools for the second year in a row.

However, an alarming percentage of young women who leave medical school eager to practice medicine soon find themselves experiencing symptoms of burnout. One study defines burnout as “long-term, unresolvable job stress that leads to exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed, cynical, detached from the job, and lacking a sense of personal accomplishment.” 

Women physicians experience burnout in greater numbers than their male counterparts, and they’re more likely than their male peers to shift to part-time practice or drop out of medicine altogether. In a 2018 survey conducted by The Physicians Foundation, 85 percent of female physicians expressed feelings of burnout compared to 74 percent of males.

Reasons for female physician burnout

Sobering statistics like these raise the question of why the burnout rate for female physicians is significantly higher than it is for their male counterparts. In an extensive study, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) offered a number of explanations, including:

  • Lack of work-life integration – While achieving a satisfactory work-life balance can be challenging for both men and women, research shows that women employed full-time spend an additional 8.5 hours per week on childcare and other domestic duties, and if their partner works full time, women performed an additional two hours of work at home daily. For men with full-time working partners, their domestic duties increased by only about 40 minutes. 
  • Gender bias and discrimination – More than 70 percent of women physicians have reported some form of gender discrimination, including disparaging or disrespectful comments or treatment, lack of career promotion and disparities in resources, rewards and reimbursement.
  • Autonomy and workload – The NAM study noted that institutional pressures to perform administrative tasks and support patients’ emotional needs have been shown to disproportionately affect female physicians. This may be due to our culture’s tendency to identify women as caretakers and nurturers, which leads female physicians to spend more time with patients than their male counterparts. That extra time quickly adds up, often forcing women physicians to work overtime to update patient notes and handle other administrative tasks.

Fighting burnout and empowering female physicians

One female physician who has stepped forward to confront this challenge is Dr. Dawn Sears, a graduate of Texas A&M College of Medicine and a specialist in gastroenterology. Though being a woman in this particular specialty is rare, Dr. Sears has not let that circumstance slow her down. She now serves as chair of the gastroenterology division at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple, where she is making her voice heard on the subject of female physician burnout.

Dr. Sears is uniquely qualified to confront this issue. As a mother of three children (including a daughter with special needs) and a doctor in a demanding field, her leadership is based on hard-earned experience.

“I believe God has placed me in this position for such a time as this,” Dr. Sears said. “To lead in a really neat way that only I can do because only I can tell my story of being in a specialty that, at the time, was only 3 percent women and is now up to 12 percent.”

Well aware of the 85 percent burnout rate among female physicians and determined to bring about change, Dr. Sears decided to bring together a diverse group of 10 other women physicians in 2017. Together, they went to work creating a group they called Women Leaders in Medicine and subsequently staged a half-day summit attended by 120 Baylor Scott & White physicians and leaders in Central Texas. Shortly thereafter, The Physicians Foundation awarded Women in Medicine a $150,000 grant to continue its efforts to reduce burnout among women physicians through leadership development and networking opportunities.

These initial efforts have now grown into twice-yearly gatherings attended by more than 300 women physicians in North and Central Texas. In addition to these summits, the work of Dr. Sears and her associates includes networking events, online connections and support groups, and mentoring relationships, all based on disciplined research efforts.

A data-based approach

What makes the Women Leaders in Medicine program truly unique is its evidence-based approach to the challenge of reducing burnout among women physicians.

“We have objective data from 150 different points, from school debt to special needs children to specialty to hours,” said Dr. Sears. “We’re collecting all of this longitudinally and on the same person to be compared with themselves from two years ago. In between, we’re looking into: which programs did they participate in and what difference did they make?”

It’s through this data-driven approach that Dr. Sears and her associates hope to discover what can truly improve conditions for women practicing medicine. One of the most promising elements of their work is an emphasis on relationship-building and mentoring.

“Our data shows that whether you are the mentor or the mentee, your burnout scores decrease,” she says. “It’s all interpersonal. To have these real-life connections and chances to foster each other has a tremendous, positive impact. That’s our secret sauce.”

The response to their innovative program has been overwhelming, not only from established practicing physicians, but from residents and medical students as well. In a November 2019 survey, 89 percent of participants said the Women Leaders in Medicine program helped prevent burnout in their careers.

Spreading the cause beyond Texas

While the Women Leaders in Medicine program has already made a significant impact throughout the Baylor Scott & White Health system, Dr. Sears hopes that its influence will soon be felt across the nation. Her plan is to distribute the Women Leaders in Medicine model to other health care programs in the U.S., sharing best practices and encouraging other medical groups nationwide to invest time and resources in their female physicians.

To learn more about recent advances in medicine and find practical advice to help you stay well, check out the Baylor Scott & White Health blog, Scrubbing In.

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