NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 6
To Patients Who Feel Overwhelmed:
Put your own mask on first!
In my spare time, I go around talking to other doctors about how to take care of ourselves. You may or may not be aware of physician burnout. It’s quite the trendy topic in medical circles these days, and not in a good way. Over 50% of physicians report at least one symptom of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, or low sense of personal accomplishment), higher than the general population. Physicians also kill themselves at much higher rates than the general population. I’m grateful for the opportunity to study and speak on physician health and well-being, because it informs my practice in ways I had not anticipated.
To be clear, physician burnout is not a problem of personal weakness on the part of doctors themselves. The healthcare system in the United States has evolved to such a dysfunctional state that some of its best and brightest find themselves despondent, depressed, and ready to quit. And yet, we are called to persevere in the system as it is, even as we strive to improve it.
I see the same pattern in American society generally. Technology and other advances have created a world of 24/7 hyper-stimulation, global comparisons of productivity and innovation, and immense pressures to be perfect, or at least appear so. Men and women live under constant scrutiny and competition. Do I make enough money? Is my work impressive enough (to others)? Are my children in the right activities? Am I doing enough? I see, hear, and feel it from my patients every day—the anxiety, the uncertainty, the angst. The suffering is real, if not totally tangible.
For those of you whose exercise routines hold you up, how quickly do you abandon your workouts when things get really busy? What about quality time with your friends? What about your painting, knitting, writing, reading, skating, volleyball, music, and sleep? Everybody recharges a different way, but I see a common pattern of ignoring the low battery alerts and pushing ourselves to empty—physicians and patients alike.
Our systems need to change, no doubt. Medicine, business, education, politics… We need to get clear about what and whom we really serve. In medicine, I believe physicians should lead the movement toward a more humane internal culture. There is no way we can take excellent care of our patients if we are not well ourselves, and we cannot wait for corporate leaders and policy makers to advocate for us. The same is true for you, our patients. What do you need to be healthy? What can you change in your habits, environment, and relationships to meet these needs? And in making such changes, what positive ripple effects could you have on those around you? Can you lead by example?
If we all put our own masks on first, like they say on airplanes, how many other people’s masks could we help with?