Other times, you may notice a physician in your practice or at a hospital who may be suffering from burnout. Common symptoms include depersonalization—our patients are problems, not people—emotional exhaustion, cynicism about practicing medicine and additional patient complaints or sloppy medical errors.
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Explore This IssueJune 2017
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The biggest tipoff is a personality change. A usually upbeat and enthusiastic doctor, for example, may appear downtrodden, complain more and can no longer find meaning or significance in practicing medicine, says Helane Fronek, MD, FACP, FACPh, a certified physician development coach and assistant clinical professor of medicine at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
“Sometimes, all that’s required is for somebody to make a connection,” she says.
If you decide to approach another physician, be generic. Dr. Fronek suggests saying something like, “This is what I’ve been noticing and am wondering what’s going on. Is there some way I can help because I care about you?”
Be prepared for rejection, not once but multiple times, she says, explaining that doctors are trained to pull their own weight, ignore stress and hide their emotions. Still, keep at it. Depending on the severity of the burnout, consider approaching the doctor more than once—and always with an attitude of compassion rather than judgment. Doctors need to understand that this potential side effect of practicing medicine can be prevented by engaging in mindfulness practices, fulfilling activities within and outside medicine and creating reasonable expectations and boundaries.
There is no simple solution, and each physician experiences burnout differently. Encourage them to examine what’s driving their stress, she says, pointing to specific work habits or arbitrary rules, such as they must always finish charting before leaving work. Suggest options or explain how you or other doctors handle such situations. By helping them dig beneath the surface, she believes they will better understand what’s driving them and, subsequently, fueling their burnout.
“So many burned-out physicians can regain their love of medicine,” says Dr. Fronek. “There are many avenues to feel better. My hope is that more physicians and medical care facilities will reach out and avail themselves of these opportunities.”
Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.
Ways to Battle Burnout
To help physicians battle burnout, medical institutions can:
- Provide forums for physicians to talk about their feelings or job difficulties in a formal, organized manner;
- Provide training for peer support;
- Provide healthy workplaces;
- Encourage physicians to deal with stress immediately to prevent escalation; and
- Encourage physicians to create a written description of their ideal practice, which will give them a target for a better practice and better life.