When I left clinical practice, I thought I was prepared for the change in my identity.
I was shocked by the degree to which my sense of myself and my value in the world were rocked by leaving the profession. After all, I left practice less than seven years after I could legally write M.D. after my name. In residency and when practicing (and even to some extent as a medical student), I had reveled in the admiration of people I met at social gatherings—without realizing it. When I introduced myself as a physician, strangers leaned into the conversation, their faces lit up, with questions that were brisk and enthusiastic. Later, when I introduced myself as a writer, the response was completely different. I might get a question about what I wrote or where I was published, but the energy was pretty lackluster. And I saw how much I had basked in the shininess of the physician identity.
Eventually, I learned I could be perfectly happy without the adoration of fellow guests at dinner parties. I saw that my value in the world is not defined by my title or job description, but by how close I come to being the kind of wife, mother, daughter, sister, writer, consultant, coach, community member, and world citizen that I aim to be. It’s about who I am and how I am, not my degrees or title or position or credentials. I wouldn’t have faced this question of my value in the world if I hadn’t experienced burnout and left clinical practice.
Or maybe I would have.
Many of the physicians I’ve spoken with who have tackled the question of whether or not to leave because of burnout have faced this same question of identity—and facing the question seems to be essential to their being able to make different choices in how they practice. The experience of two physicians immediately comes to mind.
This post was co-authored with David Brendel, a psychiatrist and executive coach who blogs at Leading Minds Executive Coaching. It appeared on KevinMD on April 9, 2018.
Physician burnout rates hover around 50 percent and the adverse consequences are serious. Burnout is associated with increased medical errors, suboptimal care, turnover, and personal costs, including substance use, depression, and suicide. The financial cost to healthcare organizations is significant: replacing a physician is estimated to cost at least $500,000. Plus, physician turnover results in care disruption, patient access issues, and lost revenue for hospitals to which the physician referred patients for specialist care and other services.
What fuels burnout? Contrary to popular belief, burnout is not due to personal weakness or increased susceptibility to stress. Professional burnout is a predictable response to stress in the workplace.
I am VERY resistant to burnout solutions that focus solely on the individual, as these seem to imply that the problem originates in the affected person. This approach pokes at a sore spot, because of the years I spent secretly worried that the reason I left practice was personal weakness or inadequacy, something I lacked or failed to do.
When in 2013, I ran across the research on burnout, I learned otherwise. By definition, professional burnout is caused by workplace stress. It is not due to a personal weakness, and it can happen to anyone.
My presentations and the book I co-authored make this point—that while individual-based solutions like mindfulness and medication practice are very valuable, they must not distract a health care organization from dealing with the underlying causes of stress in the workplace: broken processes, disrespectful culture, inefficient electronic health records (EHRs), lack of team-based care.
A recent interview caused me to rejigger my thinking on the topic. Tom Jenike, MD, is chief human experience officer at Novant Health, an integrated health system in North Carolina. (Love the title.) He began our interview describing an initiative at his organization that focuses on building resiliency in clinicians. A dime a dozen, I thought. Yet another health system placating frontline physicians and nurses with stress reduction techniques.
But within the span of the call, I changed my mind about the relationship between individual and systems solutions. Why? Because of the results—not just the engagement and satisfaction outcomes, but the culture and systems changes that the initiative has catalyzed.