Time was baffling. It seemed like just yesterday that I sat in a posh auditorium in Chicago as an enthusiastic young adult during my first day of medical school orientation at Northwestern in 1995. Eighteen years later I was a 43-year-old who was a burned-out physician, practicing in Boise; I became disillusioned enough to leave clinical medicine. During my time of maximum burnout, I observed that I was becoming the type of physician I never wanted to be. I was impatient and sarcastic. Occasionally, I was dismissive of my patients. I was not happy.
As I learned about the problem of physician burnout, I came to recognize I was not alone. While researching the topic for a book I recently wrote, I realized that physician burnout is not some psychological abnormality to be embarrassed to speak about in public — quite the contrary. For example, survey results in the past five years show 87 percent of American physicians experience symptoms of burnout. On the extreme spectrum, female physicians have a successful suicide rate of 250 percent to 400 percent higher than their counterparts in the general population. Something very alarming is going on in the American health care system nowadays. Doctors aren’t happy and neither are patients. The proverbial admonition “Happy doctors make for happy patients” comes to mind, with the caveat that the reverse is also true.
Burnout affects not only the physician experiencing the problem, but also their families. It also dramatic implications for the patients the burned-out physician treats. Increasing time constraints, the ever-present threat of litigation, burgeoning bureaucracy, increased patient expectations, and technological advances have made the challenging, stressful profession of medicine even more so. In fact, given the current state and the demands of the American health care system, I have realized burnout is an almost inevitable response. Something needs to be done about it.
Patients need to believe in their doctor. An empathetic touch can make all the difference and also be the key to medical success. Danielle Ofri exemplifies this point in her book, “What Doctors Feel,” when she notes that the rate of severe diabetic complications in patients of doctors who rate high on a standard empathy scale is a remarkable 40 percent better than those cared for by physicians with low empathy scores. Ofri observes that this difference is comparable “to the benefits seen with the most intensive medical therapy.” The tragedy of burnout is that it effaces genuine empathy, spirituality and commitment. Nietzsche put it best: “Physician, heal thyself: then wilt thou also heal thy patient.”
At some point in almost every physician’s career, we had a powerful desire to help others. When suffering burnout, many of us become so disillusioned by our failure to achieve these aspirations that our passion is replaced by a strong contempt, bordering on hatred, for the profession we chose and once loved. My goal is to reignite that flame, as I have been able to do for myself, and give physicians a chance to rediscover a sense of joy, pleasure and fulfillment from this noble profession.
I have recently begun practicing again in Emmett. I love going into work nowadays. Additionally, I have been honored to work with physicians both locally and on a national level as they cope with the complex dilemma of physician burnout. It is a difficult problem, but one that must be addressed urgently for the sake of physicians, their families and most importantly the patients they care for.
Dr. Tom Murphy practices medicine in Emmett. His book, “Physician Burnout: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery,” was recently published, and his website is tommurphymd.com.