Cultivating Physician Resilience

“Physician resilience” is a phrase that is heard more and more frequently in the clinical setting. But what does it really mean?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines it this way:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.”

By its very nature, the practice of medicine is stressful. And yes, it can be full of trauma, tragedy and even threats. Doctors and advanced practitioners carry a huge responsibility for patients’ lives and well-being, all while having to navigate an increasingly complicated healthcare delivery system.

For physician well-being, resilience is more important than ever as rising stress levels and
physician burnout have become prevalent.

Claudia Finkelstein, MDCM, noted that there is a lot of interest currently in the issue of physician resilience. Finkelstein serves as the director of wellness, resiliency and support for the vulnerable at Michigan State University. In this role she is helping MSU health care providers address care for vulnerable populations while developing a wellness and resilience program for the College of Human Medicine’s faculty and staff.

Practitioners and leaders often discuss how some aspects of resilience might be innate, how much can be learned and why the issue is so important for physicians.

“Resiliency includes the capacity to push through difficult circumstances and to bounce back from difficulty. Both of these are evident and necessary in order to be admitted to and to complete medical training,” Finkelstein said. “I think it has been essential all along, not only now, to have resilient individuals providing care, presence and attention to people in need.”

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Three keys to physician resilience

Finkelstein outlined three keys to cultivating physician resilience and well-being: 

  1. Acknowledging imperfections
  2. Focusing on yourself (individual resilience), including reconnecting with one’s purpose
  3. Identifying team resilience

Resilience should encompass both one’s professional practice and individual lifestyle. By paying attention to both, physicians are better equipped to stay physically and mentally healthy, and avoid physician burnout.

The first key: acknowledging imperfections. Finkelstein encourages physicians to view things that haven’t worked out exactly as planned as opportunities for growth and quality improvement, instead of resorting to self-judgment.

She also noted that it is important to build systems that are unlikely to fail in ways harmful to patients based on one individual misjudgment.

Individual resilience depends on viewing oneself as one’s own greatest medical instrument and keeping it finely tuned,” explained Finkelstein. “That is to say, getting enough sleep, hydration, exercise and recreation. Making sure to reconnect with one’s purpose and to cultivate social support systems are also essential.”

The basics of team resilience include communication, mutual positive regard, trust, and a shared purpose, Finkelstein added. Healthcare professionals can encourage their facilities and practices to focus on these aspects in training and team-building sessions.

If a problem comes up, physicians can lean on their colleagues and peers to find solutions and work through issues. Building that community and team connection can help doctors feel less isolated and alone in their practices.

More tips for building physician resilience

The APA provides additional ideas to help build resilience, including:

  • Accepting that change is a part of living
  • Making connections
  • Moving toward your goals
  • Taking decisive actions, and
  • Looking for opportunities for self-discovery 

  • By incorporating these tips, physician well-being and resilience can improve, translating into better patient care and outcomes.

    The end result

    “It is absolutely pivotal for physicians to be resilient. We need to be strong in order to be there for our patients in all of the ways they need us,” Finkelstein commented.

    “It is increasingly clear that burned out physicians provide suboptimal care. Remaining strong in the face of increased demands is crucial to continue to provide excellent care. It is also crucial to recognize that systems issues must be addressed in order to minimize burnout and keep resilient physicians functioning at the top of their game in the best interest of their patients,” she added.

    “It is very important to stay connected with the purpose and meaning of our jobs as physicians. I think the other essential skill is to work on self-compassion – that is viewing ourselves as sharing the humanity of our patients and therefore having permission to be imperfect at times. In this way we will better understand their struggles and our own.”

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