Silent Crisis: Doctors' Burnout Epidemic Threatens Healthcare System as Pediatric ICU Physicians Speak Out

Melanie Gray Miller, a 30-year-old physician training to become a pediatrician, recently shared her emotional experience of losing a beloved patient. Her story sheds light on the isolation and grief that doctors often face in their profession.

Miller recounted the sudden death of an infant who had been critically ill for months in the pediatric intensive care unit at the Medical University of South Carolina. Despite the inevitability of the child's condition, the unexpected loss left Miller feeling overwhelmed and alone.

The medical field seldom allows doctors to grieve while on duty. However, in a recent meeting with physicians and hospital administrators, Miller and her colleagues opened up about the insomnia, emotional exhaustion, trauma, and burnout they experience in the pediatric ICU.

Grant Goodrich, the hospital system's director of ethics, acknowledged the occupational hazards that the industry tends to downplay, saying, "This is not a normal place. Most people don't see kids die."

To help staff cope with the stress, the hospital has implemented conversations focused on the well-being of early-career doctors who have just completed month-long rotations in the pediatric ICU. These discussions, led by Alyssa Rheingold, a licensed clinical psychologist overseeing the hospital's resiliency program, aim to provide more than simple self-care techniques like yoga or taking baths.

Burnout among healthcare professionals has long been a pervasive issue, which the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. Health systems across the country are making efforts to boost morale and prevent clinicians from leaving their positions prematurely. However, the problem extends beyond workforce shortages, with rates of physician suicide being a concern for many years.


Primary care doctors, such as pediatricians and family physicians, face an elevated risk of burnout. They are frustrated with the demands imposed by hospital administrators and health insurance companies. The grueling shifts assigned to medical residents during the early years of their careers, combined with the routine exposure to death, grief, and trauma, further contribute to their distress. The prevailing culture in medicine expects doctors to bear these challenges without prioritizing their own mental health.

Additionally, the number of doctors in the United States is not growing rapidly enough to meet future demand. Burnout exacerbates workforce shortages and could potentially limit patients' access to basic care. According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034.

Surveys conducted among physicians reveal alarming levels of burnout and stress. More than half of the responding doctors expressed negative feelings about the current and future state of the medical profession. Many indicated a desire to retire early. Primary care providers, in particular, experience higher rates of burnout, with 70% reporting such feelings even before the pandemic.

Factors contributing to burnout include the high levels of student debt that medical school graduates carry, though their salaries are considerably higher than the national average. The bureaucratic burdens of practicing medicine, such as dealing with insurance companies for prior authorization or navigating complex electronic health record systems, also weigh heavily on physicians.

The healthcare system's culture promotes a "keep moving" mentality, which discourages doctors from expressing their emotions or seeking help. This mentality can be detrimental, as it prevents doctors from addressing burnout and its potentially dire consequences, including an increased risk of suicide. Female physicians, in particular, face a higher rate of suicide compared to women in other professions.

There is a need for systemic changes to address the burnout crisis, including altering the cultural expectations within the medical field. The experiences of older physicians, who have often endured even more challenging circumstances, need to be acknowledged and improved upon. Without these changes, early-career physicians will continue to face burnout within the first few years of their careers. Efforts are being made to provide support and counseling to physicians, but comprehensive change is essential to safeguard their well-being.