Is this a good time to be a physician? Absolutely! In fact, I believe there has never been a better time to practice medicine. I hold this belief despite the barrage of negative comments and predictions from doomsayers remarking on the sorry state of health care in its current state.
Before I tell you why I’m so optimistic, I’d like to acknowledge one fact: practicing medicine is more complex and difficult than ever, however, this fact doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm. There is no doubt that over the past two decades a great many changes in the health care environment have consumed doctors’ time, distracted us from our core task of providing care, and impacted our incomes.
Meanwhile, patients’ expectations of the health care industry and of their physicians are changing. An increasing number of people want more involvement in their own health care and want to partner with their physician. So it is not hard to understand how practicing medicine can feel more challenging than ever.
For example: results from a national survey reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 indicated that US physicians suffer from more burnout than other American workers.
Burnout, in this report, was defined by “loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment”; 45.8% of responding physicians had at least 1 of these symptoms.
So why am I so optimistic?
Because when I read these survey results, and others like them, bureaucracy and complexity are often cited as the reasons why physicians are unhappy. Not patient care.
While these factors (bureaucracy and complexity) can momentarily take physicians away from their passion of practicing medicine, it is the passion of a physician, precisely, that fuels my optimism for the state of health care today.
The multitude of opportunities that currently exist for a physician to take an active, positive role in shaping the delivery of health care – while at the same time developing the best potential to positively impact their lives as physicians and the lives of their patients – are astounding and deserve to be explored.
Twenty years ago, who would have believed that doctors today operate in a world where they can quickly detect life-or health-threatening changes in a patient’s condition through home-based monitoring? Or that a physician who has never seen a particular patient can view her entire medical record before treating her for an emergency condition?
The advances in technology and knowledge based systems not only provide ample opportunity for physicians to become better practitioners, they also allow physicians to ask bigger questions and provide a reliable framework for sharing our collective knowledge with one another. This is but one example of why I think now is a good time to be a physician.
Here’s another reason. In my thirty years with Kaiser Permanente, both as a practicing physician in internal medicine, hematology and oncology, and over eight years in senior leadership roles, I have seen first-hand the positive transformation in the lives of physicians who craft and own the systems they work in.
Physicians at Kaiser Permanente who led the charge in integrating patient-centered care with technology, who combined evidence-based practice with accountability, and who fostered innovation and teamwork all had one thing in common: what they were really embracing was leadership.
Some might say that we can’t learn from Kaiser Permanente’s experience because it is so unique to KP.
Physicians everywhere today have a central leadership role to play in the transformation of a health care system that aligns incentives, relies on evidence-based medicine and delivers coordinated, patient-centered care.
So how can physicians everywhere embrace a leadership role when they are mired in the various bureaucracies that often lead to burn out as cited in the above survey?
My answer to this question is two-fold: First, and always, is to recognize that when we, as physicians, put on our white coats we are already assuming a leadership role given our immense responsibility to care for and improve the health and well-being of our patients as we uphold the Hippocratic Oath.
I am suggesting that we expand our thinking about what it means to be a physician leader, both inside and outside the examination room. Second is to recognize that patients under our care not only depend on our medical experience and knowledge, but also rely on our ability to work together as physician leaders to provide an entire health care system that works in their best interest, and fosters the greater good for society at large.
Physicians are leading a paradigm shift with our patients; instead of the costly approach of treating illness, we are now focusing on preventing illness. Physicians must shift our own thinking as well; instead of the costly route of reacting to physician burnout, we must step in – and up – and take measures to prevent it.
Who better to lead the transformation of our health care system to one that improves core qualities, service and access – while at the same time reducing costs – than physicians and their dedicated teams?
It is my belief that the trusted physician axiom of “do no harm” must be partnered with “do great benefit”, led by physicians who passionately embrace the tools and resources available to them. This is, indeed, an exciting time to be a physician and I can hardly wait to see what we do next.
Jeffrey A. Weisz, MD is president and executive medical director for the Northwest Permanente Medical Group which includes 1,300 Permanente physicians and clinicians who provide care to nearly 480,000 members of Kaiser Permanente. He is the author of It’s a Great Time to be a Physician: Building a Health Care System That Works.