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Despite millennial stereotypes, burnout just as bad for Gen X doctors in training

First study to evaluate impact of generational differences in physicians

Despite the seemingly pervasive opinion that millennial physicians are more prone to burnout and a lack of empathy compared to older generations, a new study by researchers at Northwestern Medicine and Cleveland Clinic found that no such generational gap exists. 

According to the study of 588 millennial and Generation X residents and fellows, millennial physicians in training did not show increased vulnerability to burnout or different empathy skills compared to a demographic-matched sample of Generation-X physicians.

It is the first study to evaluate the impact of generation affiliation (millennial vs. Generation X) on physician qualities, specifically empathy and burnout – a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Both empathy and burnout have been demonstrated to impact the quality of patient care.

The study was published May 5 in the journal Academic Psychiatry

This study’s findings cannot be extrapolated beyond the context of physicians in training. However, the statistical approach used in this study, controlling for other factors like level of experience in the field, could be used in studies of other professional fields to provide further clarity on the broader impact of generation affiliation on professional qualities. 

“As millennial physicians are increasingly entering the workforce, people seem to be wondering what millennial doctors will be like, and I’ve heard older physicians opine that physician burnout is a bigger problem now due to generation vulnerability,” said lead author Dr. Brandon Hamm, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Hamm conducted the research while he was at Cleveland Clinic. 

“Our study provides a little more transparency that it’s medical-system exposure – not generational traits – that is more likely to contribute to the burnout seen in today’s doctors,” Hamm said. 

Consistent with other studies, this paper found empathy decreases over the course of physician training, Hamm said. Additionally, Hispanic/Latino physicians in training demonstrated higher empathy scores and lower depersonalization burnout experience than Caucasian physicians in training. Depersonalization includes psychological withdrawal from relationships and the development of a negative, cynical or callous attitude.

What can be done to slow physician burnout?

“The first year of residency can be really rigorous and have a negative psychological impact on physicians in training, which can lead to dysfunctional coping strategies like substance abuse,” Hamm said. “We need to be researching interventions that not only slow this empathy decline but bolster physicians’ communities so they feel supported and less isolated.” 

This study was internally funded through the Cleveland Clinic Center for Excellence in Healthcare Communication.