NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning
My friend Alex* posted about being a nurse and how she loves it despite having to always hold her pee, skip lunch, and get bled on, puked on, peed on, and yelled at, all while missing her family and taking care of yours. One of her friends, we will call him Greg, commented that until nurses unionize and demand professional respect ‘just like physicians,’ nothing will change.
My impulsive (GRRR!) response: “Trust me, physicians are struggling, too. I propose that we stand up for one another. Then we’d really be a strong force. And in the end it benefits us all–doctors, nurses, patients, the whole care team and, most importantly, patients. Also, I don’t know of any unions that physicians can join, but there are ones that nurses can: https://nurse.org/articles/pros-and-cons-nursing-unions/” Okay, I know, saying, “Trust me,” is not a good way to get someone to trust or listen to you. And my reply was defensive in its origin. I sincerely believe what I wrote, though, that allied advocacy is an untapped force for good in medicine. Physicians, patients, nurses, all healthcare professionals—why should we not actively support one another in all of our efforts to achieve a more cohesive, efficient, fair, and collaborative system, one that works better for all of us? Why can we not embrace our connections and combine our voices to call for change?
Greg replied that basically he does not believe that physicians are “struggling,” and he does not see how we would stand up for one another. After Alex described that I’m a physician “who will always help the nurses,” he wrote that doctors “can’t be in the business of supporting nurses.” That we should “be in the business of supporting” ourselves, and “from all the research I’ve ever seen, they’ve continued to do a pretty good job of it. Good for them.” He expressed support for physicians’ right to advocate for ourselves. In each reply, he continued to make his point that nurses should unionize.
I find this thread fascinating. There are so many ways Greg and I could interpret each other’s replies. When he talks about demanding respect ‘like physicians’ through unions, what benefits and outcomes does he imagine will follow? When I say “struggling,” I wonder what he thinks I mean? Actually he asks me, “How exactly are physicians struggling?” He goes on to write, “Nurses are nurses and should be for nurses.” All of his comments and the tone I inferred from them caused me to beg off of the thread. Too bad, it might have been an interesting conversation—if we could have it in person. Maybe we can later.
But it motivated me to look up some information to post here, in case anybody wonders ‘how physicians are struggling.’ The answer is burnout, depression, suicide, and leaving work that we love because it simply costs us too much—and I mean costs other than money.
Physician burnout is well described and referenced.
Doctors suffer from burnout in especially high numbers, according to the study, which was designed to offer a representative snapshot of doctors and the general U.S. working population. Nearly half of U.S. physicians – 49 percent – meet the definition for overall burnout, compared with 28 percent of other U.S. workers. More than 54 percent of doctors have at least one symptom of burnout, a more detailed analysis found.
Doctors also register more than one and a half times the general working public’s rates of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Working a median 50 hours per week, their satisfaction with work-life balance is far lower than that of others: 36 percent versus 61 percent.
There are myriad causes for physician burnout, and most of them lie in the system, not in our inherent lack of resilience or because of some intrinsic defect in our collective character. The electronic health record has accelerated our dissatisfaction with work. It does so by creating innumerable clicks to accomplish menial tasks, burdening us with data entry that detracts from actual medical decision making and patient care, and putting a physical barrier between us and our patients, further separating us in relationship. Burned out and dissatisfied doctors are distracted, less empathetic, and aloof, and we may even make more mistakes. And when we aren’t well, our patients aren’t well.
A 2015 Mayo Clinic study reported that roughly 40 percent of physicians suffer depression each year and almost 7 percent had considered suicide within the prior 12 months. It is estimated that 300 to 400 doctors take their lives every year.
The pain and suffering those statistics only hint at is bad enough. But they are compounded by findings that burnout corrodes the doctor-patient relationship, resulting in lower levels of patient satisfaction, job satisfaction and productivity, as well as higher levels of medical errors and disruptive behavior.
Burnout is also connected to the decision to switch jobs or leave medicine altogether — an ominous trend as the U.S. experiences a growing doctor shortage.
I have not addressed here the challenges that nurses face every day. My mom is a nurse, and I have worked with nurses my whole career. I see how they are treated by the system and by patients, and also by us physicians. And yes, my extracurricular activities focus solely on advocating for physician health and well-being. Maybe I should learn more about nurse burnout and job satisfaction, and figure out ways to advocate for my nursing friends and colleagues better.
Or maybe it’s too much to ask for groups to stick up for one another. Maybe Greg is right, and it should be every tribe for itself, let others take care of their own. Maybe it doesn’t do any good for people to know how and how much doctors “struggle.” I don’t know. But I have learned now not to instigate such debates on my friends’ pages on social media.
*Not her real name