Radiology is the most mentally demanding physician specialty, with heavy workload likely contributing to burnout

Radiology is the most mentally demanding physician specialty and addressing its heavy workload could help to reduce burnout, experts reported recently.

The finding was part of a large-scale survey of nearly 5,300 practicing physicians, aimed at evaluating on-the-job demands and how they contribute to exhaustion. Researchers with the American Medical Association and several other institutions used the NASA Task Load Index to measure mental, physical and temporal workplace demands in medicine, along with the perceived effort it takes to fill the position.

Bottom line: Radiologists self-reported one of the highest “physician task load” scores of any specialty, at 272.2 on a 400-point scale. And there appeared to be a “strong association” between PTL and burnout, experts reported Oct. 4 in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

“Even a modest decrease in PTL was associated with a decrease in burnout, suggesting standard process improvement has the potential to positively impact PTL when looked at using this lens,” Elizabeth Harry, MD, senior director of clinical affairs at the University of Colorado Hospital, and co-authors concluded. “This knowledge offers front-line providers and administrators the opportunity to consider the impact of the overall PTL of new procedures, policies and quality improvement projects.”

All told, 5,276 physicians were surveyed between October 2017 and March 2018 for the study, including 221 radiologists. Docs tallied an overall task load score of 260.9/400, with emergency medicine logging the highest mark at 295.3. Alongside radiology, urology, anesthesiology, and subspecialties in general surgery and internal medicine reported the highest task load scores.

In the four separate categories, radiology logged the highest score for “mental demand,” at 78.9 out of 100. Imaging also landed in the top quartile for time demands (71.7) and “effort required” to do the job (78.4), while its physical demand score fell on the lower end at 42.5.

Harry et al. also measured workplace fatigue using scales from the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Nearly 39% of respondents reported emotional exhaustion, while more than 27% experienced depersonalization at work, and 44% had at least one sign of burnout. And the team discovered a meaningful connection between these findings and physician task load, as every 40-point decrease in PTL meant 33% lower odds of experiencing burnout.

For practice leaders, one takeaway is to work on mitigating radiologist workload concerns by redesigning systems. Harry and colleagues believe this must occur at both micro and macro levels, with the latter likely requiring help from payers and EHR providers, among others.

“Each workspace will need to evaluate redundancy and inefficiencies in their workflow while governing and regulatory bodies need to consider the downstream task load of mandates and reporting requirements, all of which contribute to extraneous cognitive load,” the team advised.

You can read more about their findings in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety here