“And in the end, when the life went out of him and my hands could work no more, I left from that place into the night and wept – for myself, for life, for the tragedy of death’s coming. Then I rose, and walking back to the suffering-house forgot my own wounds, for the sake of healing theirs.”Anonymous Emergency Physician
What happens when our caregivers need help?
The anonymous physician above knows, and unfortunately, he’s not alone.
Last month’s release of Medscape’s 2018 National Report on Physician Burnout & Depression reports that 57% of physicians report symptoms of burnout, depression, or both.
We can also observe the rise in physician burnout by examining internet searches, with the United States searches for “physician burnout” tripling from the beginning of February 2015 to the same week this year, 31 to 91, respectively.
It’s reaching crisis proportion. A physician commits suicide almost every day in America, ranging between 300 and 400 on any given year, according to Louise Andrew, MD, JD writing for Medscape.
How can we care for our physicians or anyone who serves our community? It starts with understanding.
Physicians are human, like all of us
Early in my career working with physicians, I remember seeing their human side for the first time. Standing in a room of twenty physicians, one of them mentioned the first time he had lost a patient.
The room went silent.
You could have heard a pin drop.
In an instant, the room full of confident, highly trained, type A individuals became human. The slow nods of understanding, of twenty separate “thousand yard stares.” They all knew what he was feeling. They’d been there.
“It never leaves you, each one of them,” a physician later told me. “You learn to compartmentalize so you can help the next person, but it never leaves you.”
Yet they’re trained not to show their grief, to detach emotionally. It’s almost a survival mechanism.
They spend so much time holding us up that they’re afraid to let us hold them up.
Business issues stress them
The average primary care physician works two more hours per week than seven years ago, yet sees 10% fewer patients.
Administrative work and business issues drive this problem. It consumes almost as much time, if not more time than patient care. Government regulations, insurance company mandates, and business pressures, in general, all get in between you and your physician.
According to the American Medical Association/ RAND Corporation 2013 study on physician professional satisfaction, lack of clinical autonomy – the ability to work directly with a patient to determine what’s best – harms professional satisfaction more than anything else.
And it leads to burnout.
Duane Spaulding, MD, a Colorado Springs internal medicine physician, regularly takes his colleagues on volunteer medical trips to Haiti. You’d think longs days of tropical heat treating patients in our hemisphere’s poorest country would be taxing, but it’s not.
Dr. Spaulding reports how these physicians start their trips burned out and come back rejuvenated.
“They tell me it’s because they spent their days helping people, not dealing with the paperwork and administrative matters that come with their day-to-day jobs.”
They need our help more than they’ll admit
Our physicians are a resource, a foundational piece of our community, and many are struggling.
Some have chosen to join a large system, selling their practices to become employees. That’s not always the answer. The AMA/RAND study shows that employed physicians are less happy than physicians who have an ownership stake in their practice.
We must take the time to learn and understand how our health insurance coverage works so we are informed patients. We must challenge laws and regulations that interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
We must care for them as they have cared for us.
A 57% burnout rate is 57 percentage points too high.
Let’s get to work…