RSNA 2016: Radiologist burnout is real; here's how to fix it

With long hours, seamlessly never-ending workloads and frequent isolation, radiologists are increasingly experiencing burnout. It’s a problem that can have serious effects on one’s work if not addressed properly. But considering the nature of the business, burnout can be hard to prevent and manage within realistic limits of the profession.

Some guidance on the problem was provided at an RSNA panel Nov. 29, led by three radiologists, all of whom have had to deal with burnout personally or within their departments.

Panelists were Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, a professor and vice chairman of the radiology department at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, Norman Beauchamp, dean of the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan, and David Fessell, a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

According to a recent Medscape report, radiologists rank in the top 10 of physician specialties that most frequently experience burnout. Other data shows that radiologists are among the most unhappy physicians, plagued with severe cynicism.

They ask themselves, “Do we really earn our keep?” or, “Are we really making a difference in the care of our patients and the health of our communities?”

“There are people walking these halls today who have a long trail of ribbons on their badge but who are lost and inside feel empty,” Gunderson said. “You may be such a person, and if you aren’t yourself, I bet money that you know someone who is.”

While a negative outlook fosters burnout in radiologists, so do the working conditions. Most radiology departments aren’t exactly ideal for fostering a community because the job requires long days of independent work, Gunderman said. Efforts to make work environments more collaborative could help in correcting the problem, he said.

Another contributing factor to burnout is ambition. Though it’s an essential trait to have, it can be harmful to radiologists who channel their ambitions into the wrong areas—craving high-profile executive positions and bigger salaries. (The average radiologist pulls in about $375,000 annually.)

When radiologists fail to meet their high expectations, it can leave them feeling depressed and worthless. All too often they are intertwining their self-worth too closely with their profession, Gunderman said.

“I think one reason we’re burnedout is that we’re treating the byproducts of excellence as our primary objective,” Gunderman said. “When we make the byproduct the primary objective, we basically condemn ourselves to a career of burnout and demoralization.”

Beauchamp, who said he has struggled with burnout twice during his career, found his way back to a healthier mindset when he discovered the importance of life and work balance. Whether it was spending more time with family, leaving his work at the office or taking time to exercise daily, he took steps to ensure his life wasn’t draining him anymore.

“You need to learn how to prioritize,” Beauchamp said.

Fessell also discussed the importance of work and life balance, but added that resiliency is an integral part of maintain a successful career. Inherently there will be challenges, but how they are managed is what makes the difference, he said.