Burnout among healthcare professionals is at an all-time
high. Its drivers include longer work hours, the push to see more patients,
more scrutiny by administrators, and loss of control over our practice. We seem
to spend more time with the electronic medical record and less time
face-to-face with our patients.
I have faced burnout personally. My son passed away at the
age of 29, which was beyond painful. At the same time, I felt burdened by the
growing number and complexity of metrics by which I was judged at work. Days in
the operating room and intensive care unit seemed more and more exhausting, and
my patience was becoming shorter and shorter. I was fortunate to have had a long-standing
meditation practice as well as sabbatical time that I used to decompress and
re-evaluate my career. Many of us are not so lucky. More than half of
physicians have serious signs of burnout, and more than one physician commits
suicide every day.
So many of us feel burned out these days because in our
rapidly changing profession we are asked to do more for less and with
inadequate resources. We suffer from exhaustion, self-criticism, and worry
about what will happen next to our practice, our families, and ourselves. If we
want to save our practices, patients, marriages- even our lives, we must
acquire personal resilience.
Fortunately, we can increase our resilience and happiness and reverse burnout by embracing a few simple principles—Gratitude, Acceptance, Intention, and Nonjudgment (GAIN)—that we can put into motion in our everyday lives at the hospital, at home, or wherever we are.
If you are like most doctors, you are sick of hearing about burnout. I know I am. There is a big debate on whether burnout is real or whether physicians are suffering from something more sinister like moral injury or human rights violations. That doesn’t matter. In the end, no matter what name we give the problem, the real issue is that physicians are in fact suffering. We are suffering a lot. Some of us—around one physician per day—are forced to alleviate their suffering by taking their own life. Each year, a million patients lose their physicians to suicide. Many more physicians suffer in silence and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to function.
We are losing more physicians each year to early retirement or alternate careers. There are an increasing number of coaches and businesses whose single purpose is to help doctors find their side gigs and transition out of medicine. This loss comes at a time of an already depleted workforce that will contribute to massive physician shortages in the future. Perhaps even more troubling is that those physicians who remain in medicine are often desperate to get out. It is the rare physician these days that recommends a career in medicine to their own children. We now have a brain drain of the brightest students who would rather work on Wall Street than in a hospital.
As a physician trained in positive psychology, I have been committed to helping other physicians and students improve their well-being. The focus on well-being is a welcome change in medicine. But is it enough?
On a sunny New England morning at a secluded guest house with a perfectly manicured lawn, medical residents, each with their own brightly colored yoga mat, were getting ready to assume the downward dog position. They were on an annual retreat organized by their residency program to promote wellness. One embraced the opportunity with delight, smiling through every pose. Another grimaced as his back spasmed. And yet another wandered off towards a lake to find his own kind of respite.
Physician wellness has become something of a buzzword in recent years, and rightfully so considering that the rates of burnout and suicide within medicine are rising. Individual residency programs have found burnout rates between 55% and 76%. Such burnout erodes well-being over time and may be contributing to suicide, which is now the second leading cause of death among residents nationwide. In 2014, the suicides of two medical interns in New York prompted the American College of Graduate Medical Education to take action. A series of initiatives to combat burnout were rolled out, including the consideration of wellness in its review of residency programs during site visits. In 2017, emergency medicine physicians convened the first Residency Wellness Consensus Summit to devise a module-based curriculum on wellness. Hospital systems have attempted to respond as well, through the hiring of chief wellness officers.
It is unsurprising that the medical community has taken such an analytical approach towards diagnosing burnout, much as we do with other diseases, in search for a cure. But perhaps such a prescriptive approach fails to capture the highly individualized and somewhat abstract concept of wellness. The reasons for resident burnout are personal and vast. Decreased wellness has been attributed to the lack of time for self-care, inadequate sleep, social isolation, negative work environments, excessive paperwork, long work hours, poor relationships with colleagues, and insufficient mentorship, among others in a lengthy list. Any attempt to standardize the definition of wellness should be met with caution.
So how do we as a society go forward in ensuring our resident physicians are well?Continue reading…
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