This was a guest post on the Motherhood Moment blog

Burnout – we are all familiar with the term. Nearly everyone suffers from it at some point in their life. But the one person many of us never think about suffering from burnout is our doctor. Alarming new surveys show nearly 50% of doctors report that they are suffering from some form of burnout. In 2018, over 400 physicians committed suicide due to job-related stress. With this large number of doctors suffering from burnout, the chances are that your doctor could be suffering from some form of burnout. I had a chance to interview Dr. Shola Ezeokoli, author of the new critically acclaimed book, Physician Heal Yourself, to learn more.

Can you share a little about your book?

Physician Heal Yourself is a book that was originally written to help doctors regain balance in life and defeat burnout. However, it is gaining traction among physicians and non-physicians alike. This is because all the principles discussed in the book are applicable to everyone across all professions and in all walks of life. It is a book that considers the fact that doctors need to be in peak physical, mental, and emotional health. We also need to have a strong and reliable support system around us. This book is an answer to the questions: How do I prevent and defeat burnout? How do I practice true self care? How do I avoid becoming overwhelmed by situations in life? The book has powerful questions at the end of each chapter (I call them remedies), which are a powerful self-assessment tool, which will help the reader apply the strategies outlined in the book. It can be found on my website:

How prevalent is the problem of doctor burnout? 

Some studies put the rate of physician burnout as high as 50%.  I certainly believe that, because I don’t know of any doctor who has not suffered from one or more symptoms of burnout during their career. Burnout has led to mental and physical illness, leaving the medical profession early, depression, and even suicide. 

What are some signs that a doctor might be suffering from burnout?

1.    Emotional exhaustion with significant difficulties in recovering from challenging shifts or days. 

2.    Compassion fatigue with a callous or uncaring approach when caring for patients or talking with family members.

3.    A reduced sense of autonomy. 

4.    A reduced sense of accomplishment and self-doubts about whether what you are doing “really matters at all”.  

What ramifications does it have for health care?

In the US right now, there is a physician shortage. Physician burnout will only exacerbate this problem, as more and more physicians leave the medical profession due to issues related to burnout. What this means, is that there will not be enough doctors to treat our aging population. As such, it should be taken seriously by all – from the government, to healthcare organizations, to insurance companies, to physicians themselves.  Physicians can learn to recognize the signs of burnout, and take it seriously in themselves. Physicians need to be empowered to be able to ask their organizations and employers for the things that they need to do their best work. For example, in some situations all the physician would need might be a person to take down notes, so that they can concentrate better on patient care, instead of concentrating on how to write the perfect note.  Healthcare organizations and employers can take meaningful steps to reduce physician burnout, by asking physicians what they need to be their best. A lot of employers think that meditation and yoga are the answer to physician burnout. This is simply not true. Studies have shown that burnout is contributed to by both position factors and organizational factors. To put the entire blame for physician burnout on the physician, is shortsighted. Organizations need to tackle this in a more meaningful manner. The government is responsible for residency spots. Residency spots are hospital openings for postgraduate training for doctors. More people are graduating from medical schools, and there are not enough residency spots to meet the demand. Ergo, less residency spots mean less practicing physicians overall. Less practicing physicians, and more patients means more burnout for the physicians who are already on the ground. We need more residency spots so that there can be more physicians available.  

What can patients do?

This is a tricky question. If you suspect that your doctor is suffering from burnout, the first thing to do, is ask. It may seem strange that a patient should ask a doctor about their health. However, the better the mental and emotional health of a doctor, the longer they are likely to stay practicing medicine and taking care of patients. So, ask your doctor if they are ok. Even if your doctor does not answer you in the moment, they will realize that you have noticed something, and that you are concerned. They might even open up to you about their struggles. The truth is, you want to ask questions so that you can get the best healthcare possible.  Another thing a patient can do is to be aware of the fact that physician burnout, and physician suicide are very real and more common than we would like to think. You can share articles on burnout with your doctor so that he or she knows that you are aware of this situation. 

 If you notice specific changes in your doctor’s demeanor, for example maybe you notice the compassion fatigue, low energy, absenteeism, call your doctors attention to it in a compassionate way. I know that personally, when patients have asked me about my health and my welfare, it made me feel that other people cared about me, and it also made me pay attention to my own health, and wellbeing.

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