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Facing Physician Burnout: It’s Time to Take Back Your Life

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

Editor: I’m sure at this point you’re all very familiar with my passion to tackle the subject of burnout. After my own experiences with burnout, I want to make sure people know that they have other options.  In fact, my journey through burnout is what led me to become a Life, Career, and Money Coach for Burned Out Doctors. In today’s guest post, Gayle Morris shares how you can take back your life from burnout. 

In the most recent Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report, the focus of the survey was on identifying the different burnout factors in Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. There were over 15,000 physicians in 29 specialties who responded to the survey.

Generally speaking, 48% of the Gen X generation reported experiencing burnout – 10% more than Millennials and 9% more than Baby Boomers. Gen X physicians are mid-career and likely juggling a number of responsibilities outside of work, including children and aging parents.

The expectations that Gen X physicians face in their personal and professional lives, such as the transition from being the child to a caretaker for their parents and the responsibility to plan for retirement, can contribute to a growing sense of fatigue and dissociation from patients, friends and family.

Burnout is a Dangerous Thief

Burnout steals too much from the life of a physician. Some have suffered losses including:

  • Mental and emotional health
  • Reputation
  • Patient safety grades
  • Patient satisfaction scores
  • Relationships or marriage

In the Medscape survey, women physicians demonstrated higher percentages of burnout than men by 10%. They were also more likely to say they would take a pay cut to achieve a better work life balance. Dr. Halee Fischer-Wright, CEO of the Medical Group Management Association, spoke to Medscape about the results of the survey, saying:

“Harvard Business Review published some pieces on the idea that women take on more work at work. They take on more “non-promotable” work and they carry more of the weight in collaborative work. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is that they tend to care more about the collective, such as the well-being of their colleagues or the success of the business.”

Physical health also suffers when the challenges of burnout are offset with negative compensation, such as drug use and poor sleep or eating habits. Self-medication can lead to an accidental overdose. Inadequate amount and quality of sleep can increase the risk of medical error. Subsisting on processed, junk foods raises the risk of chronic disease. If burnout is not addressed it can spiral into suicide ideation or become fatal.

Measure Burnout Before the Consequences Catch You

The can-do overachieving attitude that got you through your medical education and residency is often the same characteristic that makes it difficult to recognize the early signs of burnout. Many have found it helpful to assess their situation using assessments including the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the Stanford Physician Wellness Survey, and the Physician Well-Being Index.

These objective assessments may help identify symptoms of burnout before you get to a place where you feel like bailing is the only answer. Some of the more common symptoms also make it difficult to accept the assessment of others. So, while you may be prone to asking for help when you need it, the fatigue, anger, anxiety and depression of burnout can make it hard to fully comprehend the depth of the problem.

It’s vital to take a proactive approach against burnout while you’re feeling healthy and strong. Think of it like going out to dinner while you’re trying to watch your calories. If you make the decision before leaving the house that you won’t order dessert, the likelihood is that you’ll stick to your decision when you’re out. But, if you think that you’ll decide about dessert after dinner, there’s a higher likelihood you’ll order a slice of chocolate cake.

Embracing a proactive approach means scheduling the time to honestly assess your personal and professional health every six months. Consider using one or two of the assessment tools listed above and compare the results with your last assessment. This will give you a history of change and help you recognize subtle cues that you may need to make a change or get some help.

Take Charge Because It’s Your Life

As a physician, it’s easy to put your head down and plough through your day, intent on delivering the best care possible without regard to your own mental or physical health. Outside responsibilities like your children, significant other, parents and friends can easily take up whatever time you may have left, leaving you with no time to yourself.

The end result of ploughing through each day is not a healthy field of wheat, but rather deep ruts, fatigue, and feelings of apathy and hopelessness. You don’t need an assessment, psychiatrist or your mother to tell you that every once in a while, you have to take time for yourself.

Finding a healthy work-life balance may mean reducing your hours at work or moving out of your specialty. Changing your practice is not a common consideration since most of the time you need more years of education, internships and board certifications.

But there are a couple of options that allow you to take charge, reduce your hours, earn a competitive salary and be clinically relevant.

Sounds too good to be true? You might think so, but there are physicians who have successful, fulfilling careers and healthy home lives, too. Here are several options that might be the right decision for you.

Look Outside Your Specialty

Switching to an in-demand, emerging subspecialty such as wound care can be a wonderful way to avoid burnout. As a wound care specialist you’ll draw on your past clinical experience but leave behind the days of working nights, weekends, and holidays. Good candidates to move into this subspecialty are clinically active and have effective communication skills. Wound care physicians can come from a variety of specialties, including family practice, general medicine or one of many surgical specialties. There are also a number of exceptional benefits, like setting your own work hours, not working weekends, holidays or nights, earning a competitive salary and having the option to practice telemedicine.

Medical Educator

If you love to share your knowledge and want to influence the next generation of physicians, then teaching might be for you. It isn’t often easy to land a teaching role since the positions are highly sought after and have many of the same benefits as wound care specialists, such as steady hours, low stress and no call.

If you are open to research, then working at a university may be another option in medical education. Writing course curricula or CME programs are other options in the medical education field.

Healthcare Consultant

Healthcare consultants can do a number of jobs in medicine including working for hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, nonprofits, medical device companies, medical experts, government agencies and technology companies. Consulting will allow you to call on your medical expertise without sacrificing a competitive salary.

Medical Writer

Expert healthcare writers and editors can often work remotely and on their own schedule. Experts are needed for textbooks, test preparation material, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, peer-review articles and healthcare publications. Medical journalism is also an increasingly attractive option for physicians looking for a change. However, it can take time to build a list of clients and partner publications, so your salary can take a nose dive while you’re transitioning.

Considering Burnout Moving Forward Burnout is overwhelming, debilitating and destructive. By taking a proactive approach to identifying its risk factors and seeking help when needed, you may reduce the potential that you’ll burn out and want to leave medicine. But, if you’ve reached the end of your rope, there are excellent opportunities for you to use your education and transferable skills to earn a competitive salary and reduce your stress levels.

Working in subspecialties like wound care can provide an immediate income and offer you the opportunity to work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals in a low stress, highly rewarding environment. Other options such as teaching and writing can allow you to utilize your knowledge, but sacrifice patient care. Depending on what you want, there are many options for physicians who want to leave their positions but stay professionally active.

And, who knows? After taking a break to try something new, you may be ready to rejoin clinical practice with greater knowledge about burnout — or you might realize that your “break” has changed your life.

AUTHOR: Gayle Morris is a freelance writer that’s been writing on health and wellness for over ten years. She spent over 20 years as a certified nurse and nurse practitioner before hanging up her stethoscope and picking up the pen

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