Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Does burnout among doctors affect their involvement in patients' mental health problems? A study of videotaped consultations

Else M Zantinge12*, Peter FM Verhaak1, Dinny H de Bakker1, Klaas van der Meer3 and Jozien M Bensing1

Author Affiliations

1 NIVEL, Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research, Utrecht, the Netherlands

2 Current: National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Centre for Public Health Forecasting, Bilthoven, the Netherlands

3 Department of General Practice, University of Groningen, Groningen, the Netherlands

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BMC Family Practice 2009, 10:60  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-10-60

Published: 26 August 2009

Abstract

Background

General practitioners' (GPs') feelings of burnout or dissatisfaction may affect their patient care negatively, but it is unknown if these negative feelings also affect their mental health care. GPs' available time, together with specific communication tools, are important conditions for providing mental health care. We investigated if GPs who feel burnt out or dissatisfied with the time available for their patients, are less inclined to encourage their patients to disclose their distress, and have shorter consultations, in order to gain time and energy. This may result in less psychological evaluations of patients' complaints.

Methods

We used 1890 videotaped consultations from a nationally representative sample of 126 Dutch GPs to analyse GPs' communication and the duration of their consultations. Burnout was subdivided into emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced accomplishment. Multilevel regression analyses were used to investigate which subgroups of GPs differed significantly.

Results

GPs with feelings of exhaustion or dissatisfaction with the available time have longer consultations compared to GPs without these feelings. Exhausted GPs, and GPs with feelings of depersonalisation, talk more about psychological or social topics in their consultations. GPs with feelings of reduced accomplishment are an exception: they communicate less affectively, are less patient-centred and have less eye contact with their patients compared to GPs without reduced accomplishment.

We found no relationship between GPs' feelings of burnout or dissatisfaction with the available time and their psychological evaluations of patients' problems.

Conclusion

GPs' feelings of burnout or dissatisfaction with the time available for their patients do not obstruct their diagnosis and awareness of patients' psychological problems. On the contrary, GPs with high levels of exhaustion or depersonalisation, and GPs who are dissatisfied with the available time, sometimes provide more opportunities to discuss mental health problems. This increases the chance that appropriate care will be found for patients with mental health problems. On the other hand, these GPs are themselves more likely to retire, or risk burnout, because of their dissatisfaction. Therefore these GPs may benefit from training or personal coaching to decrease the chance that the process of burnout will get out of hand.