Near Burnout and Ready to Quit Medicine? Try This Instead

Every few weeks it seems another survey or study comes out, warning about the physician burnout crisis. One of the latest is a report in Medical Economics, published in August 2019, which found that 92 percent of physicians report feeling burned out from practicing medicine.

Is anyone surprised? It is now widely acknowledged that burnout affects a significant number of physicians—and the costs can be staggering.

Some physicians experiencing burnout simply leave the practice of medicine, which costs hospitals and healthcare organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace them. In October 2018, the American Medical Association estimated that it costs between $500,000 and $1 million to replace one doctor. And that doesn’t include all of the indirect costs.

The costs are high for the burned-out physicians who keep working, as well.

“Even when a burned-out physician continues to practice medicine, negative consequences can follow, such as the misuse of alcohol and drugs, broken relationships, and suicidal ideation. These repercussions, in turn, clearly diminish the quality of care delivered,” wrote Herbert L. Fred, MD, and Mark S. Scheid, PhD, in a 2018 article for the Texas Heart Institute Journal.

If any of these symptoms sound like you, it’s time to stop and take stock.

Start with a self-examination 

“It is really important to stop and think about yourself once in a while,” said pediatrician Jennifer Shaer, MD, chief medical officer of the Allied Physicians Group in New York.

According to researcher Christina Maslach, author of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), occupational burnout has several common characteristics. “The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment,” wrote Maslach and Michael Leiter in a 2016 article for the journal World Psychiatry.

If you think you may be nearing burnout, consider these strategies to help maintain your health, maintain your practice, and protect your patients.

7 strategies to avoid burnout—without quitting medicine

1. Find a way to boost your professional satisfaction. If physician burnout has drained your job satisfaction or your sense of connection, search for a way to rediscover that connection. Joseph Sliwkowski, MD, knows what burnout feels like. After years of working with patients with musculoskeletal injuries and problems, Sliwkowski learned about a type of targeted self-biofeedback called somatic functional therapy to help people with their pain. He began using it with his patients, and immediately saw a positive response from many of them. “This is a game changer for me in terms of professional satisfaction,” said Sliwkowski, who currently works in urgent care and also serves as chief medical officer of Somatic Functional Therapy Intl.  

2. Take time off. Have you been putting off a vacation or some personal days because your workload seems so insurmountable? Lots of physicians and other healthcare professionals are guilty of this. Don’t let your vacation days go unused, or feel that you have to be a “work martyr.” Go ahead and pencil in time for yourself on your schedule, suggested Shaer.

3.
 Try a change of scenery. Have you considered a job change? While this might sound drastic, it could be just what the doctor ordered. A new permanent or locum tenens position could be one way for you to continue practicing medicine in a new environment that is less stressful, better suited to your needs, or can give you a fresh perspective.

4Try yoga. The ancient practice of yoga can help you develop and maintain flexibility and balance, but it can also improve your mood and reduce your stress levels. Yoga has helped Monisha Bhanote, MD, a pathologist in California. In fact, she has become a yoga and meditation teacher. “My yoga and meditation practice has grounded me, made me even more efficient and focused, and ultimately made me more successful at work in dealing with the demands of being a doctor,” she said.

5. Meditate. If yoga isn’t your thing, you could still reap the benefits of meditation or other mindfulness exercises. The amount of time spent in meditation can be long or short, depending on your needs and your availability. Jeff Miller, owner of Jeffrey M. Miller Consultancy, points out the benefits of taking “micro-moments” during the day to refocus and reset, which he includes as part of his “rapid reset and recharge” method. “Certainly, one can take 30 seconds here or there, right?” he said.

6. Work with a coach
. A physician coach can help you assess your current situation, identify what you need to work on, and develop positive coping strategies. Look for a coach who is trained and certified--and works specifically with physicians, suggested Mandy Rollins, MPH, CPCC, CTPC, an executive leadership coach and founder and president of Rollins Resilience Group.  “In my practice, I have found that, to get the transformational change that most physicians are looking for, a typical engagement is six to nine months,” she said.

7. Be frank about what’s going on. If you are struggling with burnout symptoms and having trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, talk to a colleague or supervisor at work, and share with your loved ones. Most health systems and practices have resources to support physician wellness, and will come alongside you to deal with burnout issues. Your loved ones will also want to provide support in any way they can, and may be able to offer a perspective that can help you take some positive steps.

These strategies are not a cure-all, as they can’t fix the underlying issues with the current healthcare system that often contribute to physician burnout. In fact, many experts emphasize that systemic changes are imperative, and many point to EHRs as a key component that will need addressing.

However, they may help you be more resilient, avoid quitting medicine and achieve greater satisfaction in your daily life. At least that’s our hope.

Related:
The Leading Cause of Physician Burnout 
6 Top Challenges Facing Physicians 
Cultivating Physician Resilience

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