When setting on the journey to start a career, people often take their happiness into consideration. Will they be happy to wake up every weekday morning and go to work? Will they find satisfaction and fulfillment in their career? For many physicians, these statements ring true.
The American Medical Association (AMA) releases an annual National Burnout Benchmarking report, which provides data on physician job satisfaction and burnout. The 2022 report found that of 11,000 physicians surveyed, 72% reported being satisfied with their job.1 Although this reflects a 4% decrease from the previous year, it shows that the majority of physicians are happy in their current position.
A 2022 study from Shanafelt and colleagues published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that 57.1% of the 2440 physicians surveyed would choose to become a doctor again.2 This is a sharp decline from the results obtained in the 2020 survey, at which time 72.2% of those who responded said they would choose the same path. Despite this drop, nearly two-thirds of physicians are still satisfied with their career choice.2
Physicians have a demanding job — it’s not an easy task taking care of others, particularly those who are dying patients. So, what factors are contributing to their job satisfaction? This article breaks down the factors fueling happiness in a physician’s career, along with which specialties report the highest job satisfaction. Tips are provided at the end for physicians looking to cultivate happiness and career satisfaction.
Which Specialties Are the Happiest?
It’s no secret that some physician specialties are happier than others. The COVID-19 pandemic has been blamed for switching trends in physician happiness. Every year, Medscape surveys thousands of physicians spanning more than 29 specialties. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic found that physicians were largely happy in their careers.3
The following specialties were happiest outside of work3:
- Pulmonary medicine: 89%
- Pediatrics, emergency medicine, and orthopedics: 87%
- Radiology and critical care: 86%
- Plastic surgery, dermatology, ophthalmology, pathology, anesthesiology, and family medicine: 85%
Since the pandemic, these numbers have largely flipped, as many of the highest-ranking specialties were especially affected by the onset of the highly contagious respiratory virus. The 2023 Medscape survey found that plastic surgery is now the happiest specialty, with 71% of physicians reporting they are “very happy” or “happy” outside of work.3
Other specialties with the happiest physicians include3:
- Public health and preventive medicine: 69%
- Otolaryngology and orthopedics: 65%
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation and urology: 63%
- Pathology, gastroenterology, dermatology, and ophthalmology: 62%
What Makes Physicians Happy?
When it comes to a physician’s job satisfaction, there is no “one-size-fits-all” model. Some physicians place value on achieving work-life balance, while others strive for a specific goal or compensation. Whatever the reason for their happiness, there seem to be general themes for what physicians appreciate most about their careers.
Most recent studies and surveys tend to focus on the negative experiences of physicians; namely, the concept of burnout. However, it is also worth highlighting that several factors also increase job satisfaction. Researchers who conducted a qualitative study published in SAGE Open Medicine in 2022 interviewed 10 physicians and highlighted some themes contributing to their happiness4:
- Connecting with patients and their families and using that connection in a healing capacity;
- Feeling empowered in their practice and having autonomy or a general sense of control;
- Seeing the direct and visible impact that physicians have on their patients and their families, especially regarding an underserved community or meeting an unmet need; and
- Belonging to a professional community within their practice and also within the medical community at large.
The following is a breakdown of how some of these themes drive professional satisfaction for physicians.
Empowerment and Autonomy
A 2014 project sponsored by the American Medical Association (AMA) and conducted by RAND Health found that physicians who had more control over their work pace and their clinical work reported higher job satisfaction.5 This is likely due to the fact that physicians value controlling the daily aspects of their work, particularly when practicing in a corporate-owned healthcare system or hospital. The survey also found that physicians working at partnerships or physician-owned practices were more likely to be satisfied in their current position.5
Perspectives on holding leadership positions varied among physician respondents. Some of the surveyed providers enjoyed holding a management or leadership role and felt it contributed to their sense of empowerment and autonomy, while other physicians preferred to focus on directly providing clinical care and connecting with patients.5
Support From Leadership and Colleagues
The environment physicians work in also largely drives their job satisfaction and happiness. In the AMA/RAND survey, physicians noted that they value working in a practice where their values align with those of leadership.5 This is especially true regarding approaches to patients and the clinical care they receive.
Working under leadership members who also have medical training helps physicians feel more empowered and leads to better professional satisfaction.5 When leaders understand their employees’ positions, it fosters a collaborative environment and aligns practice values. Physicians report greater professional satisfaction when they have strong professional relationships with colleagues.
Providing a High Quality of Care
Physicians want to feel good about the quality of care they provide to their patients. The AMA/RAND survey found that physicians who worked at a practice they thought provided high-quality care felt more professional satisfaction.5 Many physicians place significant emphasis on building relationships with their patients and their families as part of their care. They may feel accomplished and satisfied knowing they are helping people through tough times.
Striking a Work-Life Balance
The 2023 Medscape Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report also asked physicians, “How are you maintaining your happiness and mental health?” The following answers were quoted in the survey results6:
- “I do absolutely no charting at home.”
- “I changed to a job that allows me to set my own schedule as long as I work 4 days a week.”
- “I simplified my life — stopped doing ALL administration, solely do patient care and a little teaching, plus spend as much time as possible at my remote ‘hobby farm.’”
These answers highlight the growing trend of finding a work-life balance that best fits physicians’ needs. Spending time away from the hospital, clinic, or even the computer can contribute to improved job satisfaction. The Medscape survey also queried physicians on their average vacation time each year. The majority (43%) said they take 3 to 4 weeks of vacation every year. In total, 79% of physicians take a total of 4 weeks or less of vacation annually.6
Barriers to Personal and Professional Fulfillment
Although nearly two-thirds of surveyed physicians reported being happy in their current position, there are still several barriers to job satisfaction and fulfillment. Shanafelt and colleagues surveyed physicians to rate their professional fulfillment on a scale from 0 to 10. From 2020 to 2021, the mean score decreased by 17.6%.2
This drop in job satisfaction is likely due to the increasing prevalence of burnout among healthcare providers. The American Psychological Association defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others.”7 Currently, physicians are reporting high rates of burnout, with 62.8% reporting at least 1 symptom of burnout.2
Normally, professional fulfillment in a career acts as a buffer to stave off burnout.8 Rewarding work and satisfaction help physicians feel motivated, engaged, and empowered. Happy physicians are more likely to continue practicing. Conversely, a lack of fulfillment can quickly disengage physicians, leading to a downward spiral of negativity, cynicism, and such thoughts as, “Do I really make a difference here?”
So, what barriers are standing in the way of physician happiness and fulfillment? Several studies cite the following2,5,8-10:
- Lack of autonomy or control over their clinical work, leaving physicians feeling demotivated or unsupported
- Obstacles that interfere with providing a high quality of care, including internal sources such as unsupportive leadership practice and external sources such as insurance companies and payers denying patient services
- Increased time managing electronic health record documentation or performing more office-based work than clinical care
- An overbearing workload that leaves little time for much else
- A lack of professionalism in the workplace, particularly regarding discrimination, intimidation, and harassment
- Extremely high and potentially unattainable standards, ideals of perfectionism, and “workaholic” attitudes
Cultivating Job Satisfaction in the Demanding Field of Medicine
It is no easy feat to get physicians to fall in love with their jobs again, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although individuals cannot do much to change administrative and systemic barriers to their job satisfaction, they can take steps to improve their work-life balance and advocate for themselves in their practice.
Find the Right Environment
Each physician is driven by different desires or goals — whether to work in an inpatient setting or clinic; to practice in a small, physician-owned practice; or to hold a leadership role within a healthcare institution. Whatever the case may be, they should strive to find a position that best fits their professional priorities.
Physicians can also look for programs or practices that are taking active steps to combat burnout and foster a healthy work environment. Medical organizations have the power to establish their culture and standards. There are also several professional programs available that focus on combating burnout and empowering physicians.11
Make a Life Outside of Medicine
For physicians, medicine is a large part of their lives — both professionally and personally. They are constantly pouring out of their cup to fill others’, spending each day helping their patients and their families, colleagues, and staff at their practice. As a result, it would be difficult — if not impossible — to prevent work from seeping into their home life. It is therefore imperative that physicians take extra steps to draw healthy boundaries and find joy in their personal lives.
A blog from FPM — formerly Family Practice Medicine, a journal published by the American Academy of Family Physicians — highlighted that physicians should make time for fun and family when they can.12 They should be intentional about setting time in their busy schedules to recharge and connect with their loved ones. Physicians should also prioritize what brings them happiness, whether that is through exercise, a shared activity with family and friends, or a hobby.
Taking Care of Physical, Mental, and Emotional Well-Being
Physicians know the importance of self-care and often coach their patients on how to embrace a healthier lifestyle. But how many physicians actually practice what they preach? The 2023 Medscape survey asked physicians how often they take care of their own health and wellness. In total, 40% responded “Always/most of the time,” 43% responded “Sometimes,” and 17% responded “Rarely/never.”6
Sara Taylor, MD, advised in an article published by the AMA Alliance Publication Physician Family that physicians “practice self-care, focusing on small actionable steps.”13 Dr Taylor emphasized that sleeping well, getting exercise, and setting limits on cellphone and computer use (both personally and professionally) all help physicians rest well. According to the 2023 Medscape survey, a majority of physicians are great at disconnecting, with 61% reporting that they spend 10 hours or less a week on the internet for personal use.6 Tips to lower internet use include setting time limits on social media apps, limiting notifications, and taking regular breaks from the computer.
The 2023 Medscape survey reported that 90% of physicians exercise at least once a week.6 Physicians often have extremely busy schedules, and finding time to go to the gym can feel nearly impossible. Online workout classes and instructional videos offer a great way to exercise from home. With a variety of options to choose from, physicians can easily tailor their workouts to their busy lives.
Originally Published on eMPR