Although emphasis has been put on combatting physician burnout, physician depression remains largely ignored, according to a viewpoint published in JAMA Psychiatry.
This could be due to overlapping symptoms and clinical features between burnout and major depressive disorder, as well as ongoing stigma of mental illness that make diagnosis and getting treatment difficult, Maria Oquendo, MD, PhD, from University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and colleagues wrote.
“Erroneously labeling a physician’s distress as burnout may prevent or delay appropriate treatment of MDD, a serious and sometimes life-threatening mental disorder,” they wrote. “Burnout is situation specific and driven by a demanding work environment coupled with insufficient resources. Depression, in contrast, is a disorder with well-defined diagnostic criteria and, importantly, may occur context free or as a response to a stressor.”
Not only do many symptoms of burnout overlap with those of major depression — like exhaustion and depersonalization — but the definition of burnout is constantly shifting, making it challenging to diagnose, according to the paper.
“This current lack of diagnostic clarity has important ramifications. To better understand the association between burnout and MDD and distinguish one from the other, it is essential to develop tools that could aid in the conduct of a strict differential process to determine the source of the symptom profile,” Oquendo and colleagues wrote.
In addition, burnout is less stigmatized than mental illness because it indicates a human reaction to something outside oneself and thus may allow it to become a “catchall term for emotional distress,” the researchers explained.
“As long as stigma and shame are associated with psychiatric disorders, and we have a convenient, ready-made psychosocial formulation to explain away distress in the medical profession, there is a risk that psychiatric illnesses will be less likely to be acknowledged, recognized and treated appropriately,” Oquendo and colleagues wrote.
However, the researchers noted that completing brief, evidence-based screening for depression, anxiety and substance use disorders can help differentiate psychiatric diagnoses and burnout. Easy access to confidential psychiatric services for physicians via web-based platforms or telemedicine may also reduce the risk of not receiving the proper diagnosis and treatment.
“Ultimately, the biggest challenge is rolling back the corrosive effects of stigma so that more affected physicians will feel comfortable acknowledging, at least to themselves and their personal physician, that what ails them is a treatable brain disorder and not simply an impossible work situation,” they concluded. – by Savannah Demko
Disclosure: Oquendo reports royalties from Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene and her family owns stock in Bristol-Myers Squibb. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.