Collaboration aims to battle physician burnout

The California Medical Association and Stanford Medicine have launched a multimillion dollar project to reduce physician burnout by providing support to doctors statewide.

- By Tracie White

Tait Shanafelt

Stanford Medicine is collaborating with the California Medical Association on a project to battle the epidemic of physician burnout by providing support services to doctors across the state.

“Our goal is to provide support to physicians so that they, in turn, can provide the best health care for all Californians,” said Tait Shanafelt, MD, the Jeanie and Stew Ritchie Professor and director of Stanford’s WellMD Center, which developed the project. “There is nothing like this comprehensive, statewide program anywhere in the country. It’s potentially a game-changing new model.”

The five-year, multimillion-dollar initiative will tackle the complex problem of burnout through a multipronged approach built on a population health framework. It will include efforts to promote well-being for all physicians; provide tailored support at times of increased risk for burnout, such as when physicians have relocated or are going through malpractice suits; and  assistance for physicians experiencing burnout or who are considering leaving the profession. The program also will try to change the culture within the medical community that holds physicians to superhuman expectations, discourages mental health treatment and results in exhausted, cynical physicians.

“Addressing the systemic issue of physician burnout is essential to not only increasing physician well-being but ultimately delivering better patient care,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “I’m confident that this comprehensive project that incorporates research-driven strategies developed at Stanford Medicine will help get to the core of the problem.”

The wages of burnout

A recent study shows that nearly 50 percent of U.S. physicians experience symptoms of professional burnout, a syndrome marked by exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of a loss of career purpose. The consequences are dire. Among doctors, they have led to rising suicide rates, substance abuse and addiction, and broken relationships. Burnout has also been shown to erode quality of care, increase medical errors and cause turnover and attrition that threaten to reduce access to care. As a result, Californians, as well as the rest of the country, are facing an inadequate physician workforce as more physicians cope with their distress by reducing patient load, working part-time or leaving the profession altogether, according to studies.   

“In addition to mitigating burnout, we hope to reduce the physician suicide rate in California,” said Mickey Trockel, MD, PhD, project co-leader and clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. “We also hope that by engaging physicians — and their organizations — in preserving physician well-being, they will be more effective in serving those who need them.”

The project will focus on practical, hands-on methods of prevention and intervention, with programs available to all physicians.It will incorporate a leadership academy to train medical leaders from across the state on leadership behaviors to cultivate professional fulfillment  at the work unit and organizational level. It also will include efforts to convene leaders from medical schools and residency programs statewide to work together to help change the culture of medicine and improve well-being for physicians in training.

“Physician burnout, which is primarily due to problems in the practice environment, has reached a crisis level in the U.S.,” said Sherilyn Stolz, executive director of the WellMD Center. “Bringing Stanford’s expertise in physician wellness together with the resources of the CMA is a powerful force to drive progress.”

The project also will encourage collegiality and community-building, provide individual coaching programs for physicians and offer access to new professional development opportunities, Shanafelt said.

In addition, the project will provide support to the WellMD Center for improving wellness among Stanford medical school faculty and staff, as well as serve as a vehicle for other Stanford experts in undergraduate and graduate education and in leadership development to disseminate their knowledge to benefit physicians statewide, Shanafelt said.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2024 ISSUE 1

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