Why Even the Best Doctors Burn Out

Est. Reading Time: 3 Minutes

In recent years, there’s been a flood of literature regarding the malady of physician burnout. There are those harrowing statistics you hear when you’re in my line of work — 54 percent of American doctors and 64 percent of American primary care doctors exhibit at least one symptom of burnout.
However, no amount of data or statistics can shed light on the emotional, mental, and physical toll American physicians undergo when in the throes of burnout. Burnout is a cancer, one that is gradually — yet methodically — eroding our physicians’ sense of being. Without a cure, or cures, we’ll risk losing everything we’ve gained in pursuit of the Triple Aim, that promising beacon of lower costs, greater access to care, and higher quality care.
As difficult as it can be to admit, I’ve suffered from burnout. However, I believe that as physicians we must be honest and vulnerable about the ways we’re affected if we want to reform the system, curing the cause rather than treating the symptoms. I was a midcareer, busy primary care doctor all too familiar with the day-in, day-out tasks that monopolize nearly every second we aren’t with patients. I’d recently left a hospital system in favor of an independent practice, a change that I welcomed and championed yet still struggled to adapt. Perhaps the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back was my first malpractice lawsuit, an event that left me doubting my professional self-worth.
Epiphanies can be a bit of a cliche, but I have no doubts that I experienced one on that night in February. Thumbing through the latest issue of JAMA, I read Dr. Tait Shanafelt’s “Addressing Physician Burnout: The Way Forward.” In that moment, I was transformed; I was stunned; I was validated. I didn’t feel alone, outlandish, or selfish.
More importantly, I recognized feelings I had almost forgotten: empowerment, hope, and a sense of calling to improve the health and experience of my fellow physician community. I was frustrated that we hadn’t been there for one another, that we’d lost sight of those core beliefs and tenets that led us to medicine in the first place. Yet I was motivated, too. I was hopeful and determined to make a difference for my fellow doctors.
Shortly after this realization, I enrolled in Brown University’s Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership program, which I recently completed. This program challenged us to pinpoint a specific, critical challenge in healthcare then research and create a novel solution. Unsurprisingly, I selected physician burnout and spent the last 16 months brainstorming, researching, and formulating an evidence-based, actionable solution — one that is led, powered, and focused on physicians.
In the process, I had the honor of speaking with thought leaders and participating in existing burnout programs. I practiced all that I learned, allowing myself to be vulnerable with my classmates, many of whom were physicians. In doing so, I noticed the barriers the American healthcare system erects as well as the bridge through all of the chaos, inefficiency, and isolation. That bridge is made up of a community of our fellow physicians.
I’m happy to say that not only am I thrilled to be practicing medicine again and that I’ve rediscovered the joy of treating patients, but that I also have a new goal: combating burnout.
This series is designed to give a professional and personal look at the program I designed, one that I believe could alleviate much of the stress and lost opportunities burnout can cause. We’ll examine the ways in which the emotions that led us to medicine can, paradoxically, lead to burnout. Service, excellence, curative competence, and compassion are all wonderful values. However, they contain downsides that, if not handled carefully, jeopardize our patients’ and our own well-being.

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