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Extent of burnout in emergency medicine highlighted in new survey

By Reporter - 27th May 2022

The Irish Association of Emergency Medicine (IAEM) has drawn attention to a new survey which shows the extent of the problem of burnout among the specialty in Ireland, and internationally.

A survey carried out by the European Society of Emergency Medicine (EuSEM) among emergency medicine (EM) professionals in 89 countries showed that 62 per cent of the responders had at least one symptom of burnout syndrome and 31.2 per cent had two.

The IAEM points out that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a prolonged increase in workload and stress among specialists in many branches of healthcare, but this has been particularly noticeable in emergency medicine.

In Ireland, the survey found that almost two thirds of those surveyed had symptoms of burnout and that, in many cases, this had led to their thinking about a change of career. Burnout also tended to affect younger professionals more significantly than those who were older and more experienced.

“This is worrying because these are the EM specialists of tomorrow…………..,” said IAEM President Dr Fergal Hickey “… and the increase in understaffing that will arise as people leave their jobs will only make matters worse for those who remain.”

Another factor is the general lack of access to much-needed psychological supports for EM specialists who are under stress at work.

Overall, the survey showed that only 41.4 per cent of all responders reported access to psychological supports, either face-to-face or at a distance.

It is well described that burnout in healthcare professionals may lead to alcohol and drug abuse and even suicide in extreme cases. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a further common manifestation of burnout and this can have long-term consequences for the individual.

“If an EM worker is overworked and under stress, this will have a negative effect on patient care” said Dr Hickey.

“Burnout can manifest itself as an indifferent attitude to patient care and compassion fatigue as well as reducing the productivity and efficiency of the professional. It can lead to lower-quality care and an increase in medical errors.”

The report concludes that healthcare professionals with burnout have a greater tendency to step aside and feed the vicious circle of staff shortages and the loss of educated professionals.

“This situation, if not addressed correctly and urgently by policy makers, is likely to represent a threat to the healthcare system,” say the authors.

The IAEM calls for urgent action to address the causes of this ever-worsening situation in Ireland. It says there needs to be an end to the practice of lodging in “the emergency department (ED) patients whose ED care has been completed, while they wait ever increasing periods for a hospital bed”.

Alternative pathways of care need to be provided for patients who are forced to attend EDs because of deficiencies in community and other hospital services, according to the Association.

The IAEM also states the health service needs to ensure that EDs are appropriately staffed and resourced to deal with their current workload.

The results of the survey are published in the European Journal of Emergency Medicine.

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