Burnout? Not so fast ... well, maybe

Physicians like myself who essentially have been honored to work his or her entire professional career in this capacity serving others (as opposed to becoming one later in life) are torn when we see stories like this.

Last year, a friend took her dream oncology job in a big academic medical center on the East Coast. After a decade of medical school, residency and specialized fellowship training, she was treating and conducting high-level research on rare and complex adrenal cancers.

She was living in her perfect city and loved her patients and the other physicians in the department. But when I called recently, she told me she was quitting in two weeks. She’d decided to start over in a different practice halfway across the country.

Why was she walking away from something she enjoyed so much? Because the work that she loved was only a fraction of her job — glimpses of patient care were lost in a sea of administrative tasks. She told me about hours spent on the phone waiting for patients’ tests to be approved by insurance companies and falling asleep in front of her laptop trying to finish the day’s clinic notes.

On one hand, the calling – that irresistable pull and drive to sacrifice so much in order to gain the privilege to heal – supersedes jaded insecurity and circumspection surrounding the decision to take such an academic mission, regardless of the short term future cost. On the other, it’s difficult not to lay blame on greater forces which require physicians to account for that privilege … at the hands of third parties, all for the “benefit” of the healthcare economy.

There are many solutions to enabling provider teams to work to the top of their license. Documentation assistance — whether in-person or with the help of electronic gadgets — and improved task-sharing have been linked to decreased physician burnout. And while a problem as complex as physician burnout won’t have a single solution, creating a system in which physicians, medical scribes, nurses and administrators work at the top of their skill set represents a step in the right direction. After all, having providers spend more than 20 percent of their work days on patient care should not be a rarity.

I spoke to my friend again a few months after her move. She sounded more optimistic. Her clinic was busier, but her support was better. Going home at the end of the day meant being home instead of glued to her laptop.

“I heard my old job was hiring more medical assistants and admin support for their docs,” she tells me. After a long silence she adds, “Maybe I should have stayed.”


Michael L. Douglas @doctorpundit

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