Let’s Talk About Physician Burnout

Let’s Talk About Physician Burnout

According to Medscape’s 2018 Annual Physician Lifestyle Report, Burnout and Depression Section, 42 percent of physicians surveyed have reported burnout symptoms in the last year. Fifteen percent of physicians admitted to experiencing either clinical or colloquial forms of depression. The National Institute of Mental Health reports 6.7 percent of all American adults suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

To say that burnout and depression have reached epidemic proportions among the medical community is an understatement.

The Medscape report also revealed a higher percentage of female physicians — 48 percent — suffered from symptoms of burnout than their male counterparts — 38 percent. Age may also be a factor. According to the report, about 35 percent of young physicians feel some sort of burnout whereas about half of physicians ages 45 to 54 feel the pinch.

The report also showed that while physicians in all specialties are susceptible to feelings of burnout, some medical specialties tend to show higher rates of burnout:

  • Critical Care — 48%
  • Neurology — 48%
  • Family Medicine — 47%
  • Obstetrics/Gynecology — 46%
  • Internal Medicine — 46%

What is burnout?

The dictionary defines burnout as exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. But for a physician, burnout is much more…with much more at stake.

Physicians are trained to endure long hours and stressful situations. However, practicing medicine in today’s highly charged political climate filled with intrusive government regulations tends to take a toll with not only the lives of the patient, but quite possibly the physicians, hanging in the balance. There are symptoms of burnout which can easily be missed or overlooked. These include excessive fatigue, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to these symptoms may lead one to self-medicate with alcohol or prescription medications…or worse.

Part of the problem is that few in the medical community want to talk about burnout. However, talking about burnout is not only the beginning of a solution but can also save lives.

Fighting burnout begins with a conversation.

Physicians dealing with mental, emotional and physical exhaustion become less able to provide quality care to their patients and find themselves leaving the medical profession altogether…or worse. It’s the “or worse” scenario that worries Dr. Debbie Booher Kolb of Madison.

As president of the Madison County Medical Society, Dr. Kolb wanted to make a difference in the lives of her colleagues. Together with a wellness committee she chairs, they began to formulate a plan to help physicians in their area who felt overwhelmed in their medical practice and to help everyone achieve a better work-life balance. They had no idea the vast support they would have for the Physicians Resource Network Wellness Program.

“My father is a retired radiologist,” Dr. Kolb explained. “I remember being in school and hearing about a friend of my fathers who changed careers. I was mystified by that. I didn’t know that was even an option. I’d never heard of a physician changing careers. It’s not even on your radar once you’re in the medical profession. If you do change careers, it’s to go into pharmaceuticals, medical directorships, or to be a life coach. For physicians, it’s truly a business decision once you leave the profession. It’s sad really to think you could burn out so badly that you leave the profession you loved so much completely behind you.”

But, it’s happening more and more to physicians. With the added pressures of government regulations, such as MACRA, electronic health records, ICD-10, and Medicaid funding, the practice of medicine has become even more complicated today than it was just a decade ago. Unfortunately, these pressures have caused physicians to burnout and not only voluntarily leave the profession of medicine, but also to lose their medical license for inappropriate behavior, or died by suicide.

Dr. Kolb’s mission is to help her colleagues prevent burnout by learning how to cope with its symptoms and finding a better work-life balance. Her mission began in 2014 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Family Physicians where she first met Dr. Dike Drummond, better known as The Happy MD, and discovered his book, Stop Physician Burnout. Dr. Drummond’s website is www.thehappymd.com.

“This book transcends medicine, and his website is great, too. I was so impressed with his actionable advice. What he taught was good nuts-and-bolts information that made me want to bring him to Huntsville so my colleagues could hear him locally. We’ve had three physician suicides in two
and a half years in Madison County alone. It became more and more apparent that we needed to do something. This is heartbreaking and preventable. All of this coalesced to really be something that we could all get behind.”

And everyone did. Laura Moss, executive director of the Madison County Medical Association, said it wasn’t difficult to get everyone on board with the idea to make the physician wellness initiative a continually evolving priority for Madison County.

“Physician burnout is a trending topic because it’s a huge problem among those in health care. Our hope is that the more we talk about it, and the more solutions such as coaching, counseling and workshops we offer, the more intentional our physicians will become about the decisions they make regarding their own health,” Moss said. “We also hope the more it’s out in the open, the less physicians will feel alone and turn to addiction or worse — suicide. This is not something many physicians were taught about in medical school, and we want to be here to offer ways to help prevent or overcome burnout in a healthy way. MCMS is excited to be focused on taking care of the caregivers and to be giving back to our members in a meaningful way.”

As Dr. Kolb and her colleagues admit, everything begins with a discussion. Little did they know how many lives they were about to touch when they rolled out the first component of the burnout program. The first step was an evening event with Dr. Drummond, which sold out 200 seats and had a waiting list for attendees. Burnout Proof LIVE was a huge success, and it’s just the beginning.

“Burnout transcends specialties, and that’s why our physicians have been so appreciative of this program. After the event with Dr. Drummond, we had people commenting and sharing their stories on social media. That’s what we’re trying to do — effect a paradigm shift in the culture of medicine. We really want to let our colleagues know this is more common than they may realize because physicians just don’t talk about it. We want to start talking about it,” Dr. Kolb said.

How can physicians get help for burnout?

The program in Madison County is an excellent start for awareness and healing, according to Rob Hunt, D.Min., director of the Alabama Physician Health Program, but there’s still more work to be done.

“More programs like the one in Madison County that get people in the medical community talking about burnout is a good start. Unfortunately, there are still so many doctors who don’t understand the warning signs, especially medical students. Female residents are among the biggest burnout populations. I think the key is education. The more they can learn about what burnout is and how to avoid it early in their careers, the better it will be on our physicians and our medical system,” Dr. Hunt said.

APHP is a member benefit for physicians of the Medical Association. It is a confidential clinical resource for physicians, physician assistants, residents and medical students created in 1990 by state law to provide a program for early detection and treatment of medical professionals with problems related to possible impairment due to alcohol, drugs, psychiatric disorders or behavior. About 90 percent of physicians who enter the APHP successfully complete the program and return to their medical practices and see patients.

“Most don’t truly understand exactly what APHP can do until they become part of the program as participants. We are here to help them, and we advocate for them to help them keep their medical licenses. We try to keep or get them healthy and keep them in their medical practice and in the State of Alabama. Our opinion is that a doctor who has gone through APHP as a participant and is being monitored is a safer physician, a better physician, than those who have problems and haven’t gone through our program,” Dr. Hunt explained.

According to Dr. Hunt, most physicians may not even realize they are burning out until the situation becomes substance abuse, disruptive behavior, or other issues that stem from being burned out. It’s these overt signs that APHP can help physicians treat.

“Physicians work as much as 80 or more hours a week easily, and they’ve done that for years and years,” Dr. Hunt said. “Some take medications to cope with that stress. They may not know it, but it gets out of control, and they become addicted. What we see are more middle-aged physicians. Older physicians have learned to cope with that stress. We’ve seen many doctors retire because of EMR, ICD-10 and other government regulations. They just refused to put up with it, so they took that step and closed their practices. It was too much stress. It’s still happening with more and more government regulations that physicians have to navigate. It takes them away from the one thing they trained their entire lives for — medicine.”

Still, if more physicians can learn about what burnout is and how to avoid it early in their careers, the better it will be for our physicians and our medical system.

Could YOU have burnout?

There are specific signs of professional burnout. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I overly cynical or critical at work?
  • Do I have to drag myself to work or have trouble getting started once I arrive at work?
  • Am I irritable or impatient with co-workers or patients?
  • Do I lack the energy to be productive at work?
  • Does work consistently satisfy me?
  • Am I disillusioned by the practice of medicine?
  • Have my sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Do I have headaches, backaches or other physical complaints that don’t subside with rest?
  • Do I use food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel at all?

If you feel you are suffering from symptoms of burnout and would like to get help, please contact the Alabama Physicians Health Program at 1-800-239-6272. APHP is a member benefit of the Medical Association. If you live in Madison County and would like more information about the Physician Wellness program, call (256) 881-7321.

Article written by Lori M. Quiller, APR, Director of Communications, and Mikala McCurry, Communications Assistant.

Posted in: Health

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