I remember a recent National Doctors’ Day at a local hospital where I worked in the cardiovascular intensive care unit. On this day, one of our cardiologists virtually bounced into the nursing station and exclaimed, “I love working at this hospital — where else could you walk through the door and be greeted by the CEO, who hands you doughnuts and coffee himself?”
He was genuinely appreciative of the personal touch and recognition he was given by the hospital’s administration. And I confess that I was genuinely surprised he cared! After all, I myself had grown a bit jaded over the years by the annual coffee mugs, pen lights, or lunch bags nurses receive from employers … His delight over that small recognition was infectious. And it caused me to pay attention to an obvious truth: Physicians are people – and like the rest of us, simply being paid for work performed is not enough to provide a sense of meaning and inspiration in their careers (not to imply that doughnuts completely fill the bill either).
A large study of physician burnout was published in 2012 in JAMA Internal Medicine, demonstrating that nearly half of practicing physicians are currently experiencing “burnout” – a rate much higher than the general population. How does this affect you as a patient? Well, unfortunately, the areas of physician practice hit the hardest by burnout are the doctors you are likely to see first when you need diagnosis or treatment: Family medicine, general internal medicine, and emergency medicine.
Beyond feeling badly that these folks are experiencing distress, we know that burnout leads to higher rates of medical error as well as loss of compassion for you as a patient (as the physician begins to detach under stress). When you are experiencing a new health problem, the integrity of your diagnosis is paramount – this can be compromised by a physician who is feeling trapped in his or her practice environment, has too little time to spend with patients due to paperwork burdens, is working long hours, and is experiencing a growing sense of futility in terms of his or her original “calling.”
Signs that your doctor is experiencing burnout could include aloofness or abruptness where she used to be enthusiastic, or your feeling that he no longer cares as much about you or your health problems. It’s fine to show your concern by asking your doctor if everything is all right, keeping in mind the above revelation that physicians are people who share the same needs we all have. If you continue to have doubts, however, you should move on to another physician in the interest of your health, difficult though that may be.
That brings us to another issue, which is a projected shortfall of primary care physicians (52,000 by 2025, according to an Annals of Family Medicine report). Clearly, this will in no way improve the physician burnout problem. We will talk more about this alarming shortfall in next month’s blog post.
A healthcare navigator, working as your personal health partner, can help you evaluate physician and other caregiver burnout, as well as protect you from medical errors and increase the likelihood that you’ll receive accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatment call us at (913) 553-6226..