Oncologists report high career satisfaction despite symptoms of burnout

Volume 2, Issue 3, 2013


Forty-five percent of oncologists have burnout symptoms, such as emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.

Photograph showing Tait D. Shanafelt, M.D., a Mayo Clinic Cancer Center hematologist/oncologist

Tait D. Shanafelt, M.D.

Even though a majority of U.S. oncologists report satisfaction with their careers, many say they have experienced at least one symptom of burnout. The findings were included in a study led by Mayo Clinic Cancer Center that was released at the 2013 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago.

"Oncology can be a tremendously rewarding area of medicine, but caring for patients with cancer is also demanding and stressful," said the study's lead author Tait D. Shanafelt, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. "Oncologists work long hours, supervise the administration of highly toxic therapy, and continually observe death and suffering, so it is important to study the issues of burnout and career satisfaction."

The study found that 45 percent of oncologists had at least one symptom of burnout, such as emotional exhaustion or depersonalization, as measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a tool that is used to evaluate the effects of stress on medical professionals and workers in other fields. Still, 83 percent of oncologists said they were satisfied with their careers.

The study was based on a national survey of 3,000 oncologists who were members of the American Society of Clinical Oncology between October 2012 and January 2013. The survey sample included an equal number of men and women and an equal proportion of people from all career stages. The survey used validated tools to assess feelings of burnout and well-being.

Among responders, 34 percent practiced in academic medical centers and 43 percent were in private practice. The rest worked in the military, with veterans or in industry. Oncologists worked an average of 51 hours a week and saw a mean of 51 outpatients a week.

Although the average number of hours worked by oncologists in academic medical centers and private practice were similar, there were significant differences in other practice characteristics, such as sub-specialization within the field of oncology. Eighty-one percent of oncologists in academic medical centers reported focusing on caring for patients with a specific type of cancer, compared with 17 percent of oncologists in private practice.

Oncologists working at academic centers also devoted a much greater proportion of their time to research and educating future oncologists, while those in private practice spent most of their time on patient care.