Pop culture often paints doctors as superheroes in white coats, but even when they're saving lives, physicians are only human.

The Physicians Foundation surveyed more than 17,000 U.S. doctors in 2016 to assess the "state of their profession," and the findings were grim. Of those who responded, 80 percent said they were overextended, 48 percent planned to cut back on hours, take a nonclinical job or retire, and 49 percent reported frequent or constant feelings of burnout.

"What we are facing today is really an epidemic," said Dr. Mukta Panda, a professor and assistant dean at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine Chattanooga.

Physician burnout affects health care costs, quality, safety, patient satisfaction and access by reducing a workforce that's already struggling to meet demand.

"Our patients and our community are big stakeholders in this," Panda said.

Dr. Rebekah Bernard, a family medicine physician and author of the book "How to be a Rock Star Doctor: Taking Back Control of your Life and Profession," shares a similar sentiment.

While working a busy practice in Florida, where "the more patients you see, the more money you generate," she began documenting coping strategies to share with her stressed and strained co-workers.

"I had different handouts and different little workarounds and secrets that I did, so I started writing those down," Bernard said. "The more I was thinking about it and writing things down, my list got longer and longer, and suddenly, it turned into a book."

But when a close colleague committed suicide, Bernard said she began spreading the important message to other groups.

"When that happened, it really raised the awareness of the problem of physician burnout and lack of physician wellness," said Bernard, who will visit Chattanooga on April 26 for a Women in Medicine event, sponsored by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Medical Foundation of Chattanooga.

Panda also experienced the tragedy of losing a colleague, spurring her to address the crisis locally.

"We have to stop this," she said. "And I felt the Medical Society was a unifying body that helped connect the three big health care systems in Chattanooga."

Bernard will discuss ways to optimize electronic health systems, tips for communicating effectively and efficiently and alternatives to working in traditional settings, with an emphasis on issues that pertain to female health care providers.

"We have to balance a lot of different roles, and I'm going to talk about ways we can attack that," she said.

For all physicians, administrative responsibilities — particularly the burden of electronic health records — seem to be a major source of burnout, Bernard said, creating a "tremendous disconnect" between physicians and administrators, who like the ability to capture computerized data.

"The doctors are not so interested in that — we're interested in trying to take care of our patients, and this doesn't help us to do that," she said. "It's almost impossible to type into a computer or select from a drop-down click list and look at them at the same time."

Panda said this dehumanization of health care providers undermines many doctors' motivation to pursue medical careers in the first place.

"Joy comes with meaning and purpose — everybody talks about a connection, a relationship, and I think we have to bring that relationship back," she said. "We are not paid for relationships. We are paid for documenting a clinical visit. Therein lies the root of the problem."

Encouraging providers to use counseling and mental health services also will be discussed.

"There is stigma and there are challenges with seeking help, and that's what we're trying really hard to improve and normalize," Bernard said. "If we don't remedy this problem, what we're going to see is a decreased number of physicians, a decreased ability for patients to get access to care, and we're going to see an impact on patient health and population health."

The event is Thursday at the Westin Hotel with a reception at 6 p.m. and dinner along with Bernard's talk from 6:30 to 8:30.

"One of the most important things with burnout is actually getting together with your peers," Bernard said. "So this is a great opportunity for them to start doing that."

Register online at or RSVP to Irene at 423-622-2872 or Tickets are $20 for Medical Society members and residents and $45 for nonmembers.

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.