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An Rx for physician burnout

artsy stethoscope - 250Burnout, which is characterized by emotional exhaustion, a sense of depersonalization and a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment, is on the rise among physicians and medical residents and students in the United States. A lengthy article (subscription required) published Friday in Time examines the growing problem and the movement to save physicians' mental health:

Experts warn that the mental health of doctors is reaching the point of crisis—and the consequences of their unhappiness go far beyond their personal lives. Studies have linked burnout to an increase in unprofessional behavior and lower patient satisfaction. When patients are under the care of physicians with reduced empathy—which often comes with burnout—they have worse outcomes and adhere less to their doctors’ orders. It even takes people longer to recover when their doctor is down.

Many factors contribute to physician burnout, including long-hours, a high-pressure work environment, the stigma against weakness and mistreatment from higher-ranking physicians. Efforts are underway to change the culture of medicine and alleviate these sources of stress, and much of the story focuses on what's happening here at Stanford:

In 2011, [Ralph Greco, MD, professor of surgery a Stanford,] Chaplain [Bruce Feldstein, MD,] and a few other colleagues, including [Arghavan Salles, MD, former chief resident of general surgery at Stanford], got together to discuss how to change things. “When people go somewhere new, they lose everything that was around them that supported them, and it’s very natural to doubt them- selves,” says Salles. “I had this idea that we could have sessions where people talk to each other, and then it wouldn’t be so lonely.”

They put together a program at Stanford to promote psychological well-being, physical health and mentoring. Every week, one of the six groups of surgery residents has a mandatory psychotherapy session with a psychologist. Each senior resident mentors a junior resident, and residents are given time for team bonding. Young doctors rarely have time to go see a doctor of their own, so the wellness team issues lists of doctors and dentists it recommends. And there’s now a refrigerator in the surgery residents’ lounge, stocked with healthy foods. They call the program Balance in Life.

“We knew we couldn’t necessarily prevent suicide—too complicated for us to solve it,” Greco says. “But we needed to feel we did everything we could do to prevent it, if we could.”

Previously: Stanford’s “time banking” program helps emergency room physicians avoid burnoutKeeping an even keel: Stanford surgery residents learn to balance work and lifeA call to action to improve balance and reduce stress in the lives of resident physicians and Program for residents reflects “massive change” in surgeon mentality
Photo by Lidor

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