I have some strategies for preventing “physician burnout.” I am a little over 70 years old and am not experiencing any of the symptoms of “physician burnout.” I do not state this out of any sense of pride, but I have tried to be introspective about this so as to offer some advice as to how to avoid this problem.
My approach is fourfold. I shall begin by reviewing the definition of burnout, and, in particular, physician burnout. Much has been written about this recently, but in order to address the individual issues, it is important that we are using the same definitions. Secondly, I shall review some facts about the reality of American medicine. Third, I shall articulate a paradox between what seems to be an epidemic of physician burnout in the context of the reality of American medicine. Finally, I will offer a nine point set of suggestions, which are meant to help to avoid the symptoms and signs of this syndrome.
Job burnout is not a new idea, and it is not specific to medicine. It has been in the psychology/psychiatry literature for quite a long time. It may be defined as a feeling of emotional exhaustion characterized by cynicism, depersonalization and perceived ineffectiveness.
In recent years, many have argued that “burnout” is extremely prevalent; not only in society as a whole but in particular in medicine. It has been said that 50% of physicians have at least one of the three cardinal features: exhaustion, depersonalization and inefficacy. The problem with these kinds of data is that are no adequate controls. It is probably quite common for many people, at some point or another, to experience one or more of these cardinal features. The real question is whether this is more than in a control population and whether they are persistent, rather than transient, symptoms. That information is not available. For these reasons, it is likely that the problem of “burnout” is being exaggerated. Nonetheless the problem undoubtedly does exist in an unknown proportion of physicians.
A friend of mine has been living well with lung cancer for five years — working, running several miles a day, traveling, doing good stuff with his family, and generally enjoying the pleasures of everyday life. He knows the cancer will eventually kill him, but has been making the most of every remaining minute.
Then, a month ago, things suddenly turned dramatically south. Severe shortness of breath, constant coughing, sleeplessness, fatigue, loss of interest, anxiety. My friend figured the jig was finally up — that he was going terminal. We all felt sad in the face of this inevitability. In our different ways, we began the painful process of saying goodbye.
Then things seemed to get even worse. I accompanied my friend to visit his lung doctor — an amiable and thorough man who spent lots of time with us, took a good history, and did many tests.
Apple Incorporated has grown to be among the most valuable and most envied companies on earth. Its products are ubiquitous and beloved by many of their users. Last year, the firm generated nearly $26 billion in profits on revenues of $108 billion. When physicians and others working in health care discuss the lessons that the medical establishment can learn from these types of corporate successes, the conversations almost always revolve around the promise of information technologies, such as electronic record keeping or electronic prescription writing, and the need for increased use of these in medical practice. While these technologies are important, the most valuable lesson from Apple’s success is a demonstration of the power of empathy and the subsequent need for health care providers to emotional connect with our patients.
It is widely known that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer in Steve Jobs’ garage; what is not as widely known is that they quickly brought in a third partner, Mike Markkula, to join and guide the company. He began by writing a one page statement entitled “The Apple Marketing Philosophy”. This philosophy stressed only three key components of bedrock company principles; the first and most important was empathy.