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As the H1N1 swine flu virus spreads rapidly through the Northern Hemisphere, doctors and other health care professionals face a heavier-than-usual workload. Even without a flu pandemic, studies show, up to 60 percent of physicians in the United States suffer to some degree from "burnout" - physical and emotional exhaustion. The stress on doctors can cause medical mistakes, so the universities that train America's doctors are looking for ways to prevent burnout.
So many children are coming to emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms that many U.S. hospitals have set up tents where they can diagnose and treat flu patients while keeping them away from other patients and hospital staff.
At a hospital in Tennessee, Dr. William May tries to diagnose his patients as quickly as he can. "We don't like to have to add that extra space. We're just busy. Very, very busy," he says.
Even without a pandemic to add to the workload, doctors are busier than ever. In Rochester, New York, primary-care physician Michael Schneider has seen the stress from his work increase steadily over the past 30 years. "It's something lost when we have phones ringing, consultants calling, computer screens flashing," he says.
A recent report by the Mayo Clinic says up to 60 percent of American physicians at times suffer symptoms of fatigue and depression, otherwise known as "burnout." The research shows that when doctors are overworked or depressed, they are more likely to make mistakes - even errors that could cost people their lives.
Another study looks at how to help physicians cope with stress. Seventy primary-care doctors in New York state took a course on relaxation and communication skills at the University of Rochester.
Dr. Michael Krasner, leader of the study, saw a definite change in the doctors after a year of relaxation training. "Burnout, physician empathy, physician psychosocial orientation toward patient, mood disturbance and some personality features improved significantly," he says.
Dr. Krasner's theory is that physicians who have better communication skills, and who know how to relax when they can, can avoid symptoms of emotional exhaustion, such as a lack of a sense of accomplishment or difficulty empathizing with patients.
Dr. Schneider says the course helped him. "We are so removed from some of the skills we had all learned - or believed we had learned in medical school - about communication, that having an intensive course that really re-teaches and reinforces the skills that we had perhaps lost, is very valuable," he says.
This research highlights how important it is for doctors to address their own physical and mental well-being, both for their own good and for that of their patients. The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.