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When PTO stands for 'pretend time off': Doctors struggle to take real breaks

A survey shows that doctors have trouble taking full vacations from their high-stress jobs. Even when they do, they often still do work on their time off.
Wolfgang Kaehler
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LightRocket via Getty Images
A survey shows that doctors have trouble taking full vacations from their high-stress jobs. Even when they do, they often still do work on their time off.

A few weeks ago, I took a vacation with my family. We went hiking in the national parks of southern Utah, and I was blissfully disconnected from work.

I'm a family physician, so taking a break from my job meant not seeing patients. It also meant not responding to patients' messages or checking my work email. For a full week, I was free.

Taking a real break — with no sneaky computer time to bang out a few prescription refill requests — left me feeling reenergized and ready to take care of my patients when I returned.

But apparently, being a doctor who doesn't work on vacation puts me squarely in the minority of U.S. physicians.

Research published in JAMA Network Open this year set out to quantify exactly how doctors use their vacation time — and what the implications might be for a health care workforce plagued by burnout, dissatisfaction and doctors who are thinking about leaving medicine.

"There is a strong business case for supporting taking real vacation," says Dr. Christine Sinsky, the lead author of the paper. "Burnout is incredibly expensive for organizations."

Researchers surveyed 3,024 doctors, part of anAmerican Medical Association cohort designed to represent the American physician workforce. They found that 59.6% of American physicians took 15 days of vacation or less per year. That's a little more than the average American: Most workers who have been at a job for a year or more get between 10 and 14 days of paid vacation time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, most doctors don't take real vacation. Over 70% of doctors surveyed said they worked on a typical vacation day.

"I have heard physicians refer to PTO as 'pretend time off,'" Sinsky says, referring to the acronym for "paid time off."

Sinsky and co-authors found that physicians who took more than three weeks of vacation a year had lower rates of burnout than those who took less, since vacation time is linked to well-being and job satisfaction.

And all those doctors toiling away on vacation, sitting poolside with their laptops? Sinsky argues it has serious consequences for health care.

Physician burnout is linked to high job turnover and excess health care costs, among other problems.

Still, it can be hard to change the culture of workaholism in medicine. Even the study authors confessed that they, too, worked on vacation.

"I remember when one of our first well-being papers was published," says Dr. Colin West, a co-author of the new study and a health care workforce researcher at the Mayo Clinic. "I responded to the revisions up at the family cabin in northern Minnesota on vacation."

Sinsky agreed. "I do not take all my vacation, which I recognize as a delicious irony of the whole thing," she says.

She's the American Medical Association's vice president of professional satisfaction. If she can't take a real vacation, is there any hope for the rest of us?

I interviewed a half dozen fellow physicians and chatted off the record with many friends and colleagues to get a sense of why it feels so hard to give ourselves a break. Here, I offer a few theories about why doctors are so terrible at taking time off.

We don't want to make more work for our colleagues

The authors of the study in JAMA Network Open didn't explore exactly what type of work doctors did on vacation, but the physicians I spoke to had some ideas.

"If I am not doing anything, I will triage my email a little bit," says Jocelyn Fitzgerald, a urogynecologist at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study. "I also find that certain high-priority virtual meetings sometimes find their way into my vacations."

Even if doctors aren't scheduled to see patients, there's almost always plenty of work to be done: dealing with emergencies, medication refills, paperwork. For many of us, the electronic medical record (EMR) is an unrelenting taskmaster, delivering a near-constant flow of bureaucratic to-dos.

When I go on vacation, my fellow primary care doctors handle that work for me, and I do the same for them.

But it can sometimes feel like a lot to ask, especially when colleagues are doing that work on top of their normal workload.

"You end up putting people in kind of a sticky situation, asking for favors, and they [feel they] need to pay it back," says Jay-Sheree Allen, a family physician and fellow in preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

She says her practice has a "doctor of the day" who covers all urgent calls and messages, which helps reduce some of the guilt she feels about taking time off.

Still, non-urgent tasks are left for her to complete when she gets back. She says she usually logs in to the EMR when she's on vacation so the tasks don't pile up upon her return. If she doesn't, Allen estimates there will be about eight hours of paperwork awaiting her after a week or so of vacation.

"My strategy, I absolutely do not recommend," Allen says. But "I would prefer that than coming back to the total storm."

We have too little flexibility about when we take vacation

Lawren Wooten, a resident physician in pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, says she takes 100% of her vacation time. But there are a lot of stipulations about exactly how she uses it.

She has to take it in two-week blocks — "that's a long time at once," she says — and it's hard to change the schedule once her chief residents assign her dates.

"Sometimes I wish I had vacation in the middle of two really emotionally challenging rotations like an ICU rotation and an oncology rotation," she says, referring to the intensive care unit. "We don't really get to control our schedules at this point in our careers."

Once Wooten finishes residency and becomes an attending physician, it's likely she'll have more autonomy over her vacation time — but not necessarily all that much more.

"We generally have to know when our vacations are far in advance because patients schedule with us far in advance," says Fitzgerald, the gynecologist.

Taking vacation means giving up potential pay

Many physicians are paid based on the number of patients they see or procedures they complete. If they take time off work, they make less money.

"Vacation is money off your table," says West, the physician well-being researcher. "People have a hard time stepping off of the treadmill."

A 2022research brief from the American Medical Association estimated that over 55% of U.S. physicians were paid at least in part based on "productivity," as opposed to earning a flat amount regardless of patient volume. That means the more patients doctors cram into their schedules, the more money they make. Going on vacation could decrease their take-home pay.

But West says it's important to weigh the financial benefits of skipping vacation against the risk of burnout from working too much.

Physician burnout is linked not only to excess health care costs but also to higher rates of medical errors. In one large survey of American surgeons, for example, surgeons experiencing burnout were more likely to report being involved in a major medical error. (It's unclear to what extent the burnout caused the errors or the errors caused the burnout, however.)

Doctors think they're the only one who can do their jobs

When I go on vacation, my colleagues see my patients for me. I work in a small office, so I know the other doctors well and I trust that my patients are in good hands when I'm away.

But ceding that control to colleagues might be difficult for some doctors, especially when it comes to challenging patients or big research projects.

"I think we need to learn to be better at trusting our colleagues," says Adi Shah, an infectious disease doctor at the Mayo Clinic. "You don't have to micromanage every slide on the PowerPoint — it's OK."

West, the well-being researcher, says health care is moving toward a team-based model and away from a culture where an individual doctor is responsible for everything. Still, he adds, it can be hard for some doctors to accept help.

"You can be a neurosurgeon, you're supposed to go on vacation tomorrow and you operate on a patient. And there are complications or risk of complications, and you're the one who has the relationship with that family," West says. "It is really, really hard for us to say ... 'You're in great hands with the rest of my team.'"

What doctors need, says West, is "a little bit less of the God complex."

We don't have any interests other than medicine

Shah, the infectious disease doctor, frequently posts tongue-in-cheek memes on X (formerly known as Twitter) about the culture of medicine. Unplugging during vacation is one of his favorite topics, despite his struggles to follow his own advice.

His recommendation to doctors is to get a hobby, so we can find something better to do than work all the time.

"Stop taking yourself too seriously," he says. Shah argues that medical training is so busy that many physicians neglect to develop any interests other than medicine. When fully trained doctors are finally finished with their education, he says, they're at a loss for what to do with their newfound freedom.

Since completing his training a few years ago, Shah has committed himself to new hobbies, such as salsa dancing. He has plans to go to a kite festival next year.

Shah has also prioritized making the long trip from Minnesota to see his family in India at least twice a year — a journey that requires significant time off work. He has a trip there planned this month.

"This is the first time in 11 years I'm making it to India in summer so that I can have a mango in May," the peak season for the fruit, Shah says.

Wooten, the pediatrician, agrees. She works hard to develop a full life outside her career.

"Throughout our secondary and medical education, I believe we've really been indoctrinated into putting institutions above ourselves," Wooten adds. "It takes work to overcome that."

Mara Gordon is a family physician in Camden, N.J., and a contributor to NPR. She's on X as @MaraGordonMD.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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