We have heard a lot of talk about physician burnout over the last couple of years. It seems that everyone is talking about it now. Everyone but the individual doctors, that is. So let’s begin the discussion and then keep talking!
What is burnout? All professions experience burnout, but the physician reaction to work stressors are unique and can have devastating consequences. Self-care was not a topic I was taught in medical school, and I would venture to say that most physicians had the same experience as I did in this area.
Why are we more susceptible? Consider those personality traits that are sought after for recruiting new doctors. These are the traits that got us through high school, undergraduate studies, medical school and residency. We are driven, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else — friendships, leisure activities, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices. We are competitive. We excel at everything we put our minds to. After graduation, these are the qualities that allow us to build successful practices and become leaders in our organizations and communities.
But without knowing how to keep these positive attributes in check, they are becoming our vices!
What are some of the symptoms of burnout? Some of them include the following:
- fatigue, both physical and emotional
- decreased concentration and loss of focus
- depression and anxiety
- self medication with drugs and/or alcohol
- loss of interest — just going through the motions
The AAFP has made physician burnout one of their major areas of focus this year. Primary care physicians experience burnout at higher rates than physicians in other specialties. Overall, 45.8% of physicians will experience at least one symptom of burnout (AAFP, 2016). Physicians are twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their work/life balance. This can ultimately lead to Family Physicians leaving practice which further worsens an already thin workforce. This then adds pressures on those left behind to continue our mission.
Burnout is a system problem as much as it is an individual issue. Some would say that the advent of the Electronic Medical Records (EMR) was the tipping point. The advent of EMR implementations brought with it new pressures. Then Meaningful Use compounded the pressures and stress put on the physicians. As if that was not enough pressure, now there is the unknown with Medicare Access & CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) implementation looming out there. Most of these changes have come in a very compressed time frame leaving little time for physicians to adapt.
For those of us who have prided ourselves with excelling at everything we do, these changes have thrown us for a loop. We have very little of our precious time in the day left to learn everything we need to with the EMR as well as keep up with the rapidly changing health care landscape.
We need to begin the discussion. We need to take care of ourselves and each other. Admitting that we are experiencing symptoms of burnout is scary, especially for people who thrive on being in control. We worry about being perceived as weak and inadequate. But do we think less of our patients who come to us with similar feelings? No, we do not.
We will begin this dialogue at the Wellness Conference in March. We are Family Physicians. Taking care of people is what we do best. Let’s begin by taking care of each other!