Daily, I am contacted by good doctors who are struggling with symptoms of burnout syndrome and who have become overwhelmed by the challenges of attempting to practice medicine in today’s health care environment. As a psychiatrist who runs a program to address and treat these distressed doctors, I am troubled by the ever-growing number of calls I receive.
The burned-out physician is exhausted — mentally and physically — and often no longer able to find empathy or connection with patients. The question of how to escape from what has become a highly unpleasant situation becomes a frequent one. Given the high demands of the profession and serious consequences of mistakes, the burned-out doctor is a potentially impaired one. And the impaired physician is not able to maintain the unflappable, perpetually cool under fire, always objective, professional and yet compassionate demeanor that is expected by society. Worst of all, the impaired physician is at great risk for developing depression, suicidal ideation, or a serious addiction.
The doctors who contact me report feeling beaten down by an increasingly hostile work environment. They say that they don’t have time to take care of patients the way they envisioned when they decided to apply to medical school. Many describe feeling betrayed by a system that they say seems focused on achieving the bottom line with little regard for the impact on both doctors and patients.
Most of these doctors report spending a significant amount of their time dealing with the electronic medical record and documentation. The ratio of time spent on doctor-patient interactions compared to physician-computer ones appears so horribly skewed that it has reached the point of complete dysmorphia. These good physicians call me when they feel like they can’t continue any longer in the profession. They want to quit medicine. They report a loss of joy and meaning in their work. They describe the toll that the profession has had on their mental health, physical health, and personal lives. And most wrenchingly, they don’t see an end.
What can we do?
There are no easy answers to the complex issues that threaten our profession. However, I am increasing convinced that we must have an open and frank dialogue about the problem, and that doctors must demand and advocate for a work environment that supports and nurtures the doctor-patient relationship. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we are trying to address this issue. The Taking Care of Our Own Program seeks to increase awareness, and provide education and treatment for distressed physicians. The program has had an over 200% rate of growth in the first year, reflecting the enormous need for this type of service. We are eager to collaborate with others who are interested in tackling these critical issues.