Physicians who work in pediatric emergency medicine (PEM) are at risk for developing burnout, compassion fatigue, and low compassion satisfaction, according to the results of a new study.

PEM physicians are at risk for developing burnout, compassion fatigue and low compassion satisfaction because of the unique challenges and stressors they face every day. PEM physicians provide medical care for acutely ill children and work closely with families during a time of heightened stress.

Those working in PEM also serve as child protection advocates, so they are always alert for signs of non-accidental trauma, neglect, and sexual abuse. Previous research shows that bearing witness to child abuse is a major stress trigger in trauma care providers. While those working in PEM infrequently face the death of a child, witnessing such an event is particularly distressing.

Despite these stressors and emotional challenges, physicians working in pediatric emergency medicine report high career satisfaction levels.

Providers may be able to improve the management of the unique challenges and emotional stressors facing pediatric emergency department (ED) physicians and help PEM physicians achieve higher satisfaction levels. Simply encouraging proactive awareness of the burnout, compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction — and their predictors — can make a significant difference.

Analyzing Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction in PEM Physicians

Researchers wanted to determine the prevalence of burnout (BO), compassion fatigue (CF), and compassion satisfaction (CS). They also hoped to identify potential personal and professional predictors of these phenomena in PEM physicians.

The researchers electronically distributed a modified version of the Compassion Fatigue and Satisfaction Self‐Test for Helpers, along with a questionnaire of personal and professional characteristics, to PEM physicians across the United States. The team calculated the prevalence of burnout and other phenomena, and constructed hierarchical linear regression models for BO, CF, and CS as a function of potential risk factors.

Among the PEM physicians included in the study, prevalences of BO, CF, and CS were 21.5, 16.4, and 18.5%, respectively.

The researchers found that the burnout score, distress regarding a clinical situation, physical work environment, and engaging in meditation or prayer were each significant determinates of higher compassion fatigue scores. In contrast, socializing with family and friends was significantly lower CF.

The team found that compassion fatigue score, distress associated with coworkers and emotional depletion were each determinants of higher burnout scores, while talking with family members and compassion satisfaction were associated with lower BO scores.

Having worked more than 20 years as a PEM physician and socializing with friends/family were each significant determinants of higher compassion satisfaction scores. Burnout score; distress about the work environment and administrative issues; emotional depletion; spending 10 to 24% of one’s time caring for PEM patients; and talking about work-related stress with a life partner were each significant determinants of lower compassion satisfaction scores.

The team published their findings in July 2019 issue of Academic Emergency Medicine (AEM), a journal of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (SAEM).

Jeanie L. Gribben served as the lead author of the study. Gribben is an MD candidate in the Division of Newborn Medicine and Department of Pediatrics, Kravis Children's Hospital, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

The authors discussed their work in the podcast, "AEM Early Access 28: A cross-sectional analysis of compassion fatigue, burnout and compassion satisfaction in pediatric emergency medicine physicians in the U.S."