Two months ago, I received the terrible news that one of my personal physicians of 20 years had committed suicide. This person was a wonderful physician with whom I had established a strong doctor/patient relationship. He was my friend and confidante, and a brilliant and caring physician. The news completely startled and shocked me.
While this personal loss touched me deeply, I’ve come to realize that others in the physician community may be struggling as well. The statistics are telling. A recent article in MedPage Today reported the mean average burnout rate for all physicians is almost 46 percent and for emergency medicine physicians it’s as high as 60 percent. Anyone can experience the symptoms of burnout – feeling exhausted all the time, being cynical about the future, disconnecting from colleagues, family and friends and doubting what you do has any real purpose. Physicians are more susceptible to burnout because of the life and death nature of their work, the intensity of emotions associated with it and an unfortunate stigma among colleagues if you admit weakness or a need for help.
Most physicians work between 40 and 60 hours per week, but nearly one-quarter work between 61 and 80 hours per week, according to a study released last year by the American Medical Association. The increased bureaucratic pressures and loss of autonomy many physicians are experiencing today make the long hours they work even more stressful and draining.
Over half (55 percent) of North Carolina physicians surveyed by the Physicians Foundation national advocacy group in 2014 said they would not recommend a career in medicine to their children or other young people, in yet another indication of the professional and personal disillusionment many physicians are feeling. That same survey found more than 42 percent of our state’s physicians are contemplating early retirement because of the recent changes in our health care system.
Physician burnout is real, and it affects much more than the physician – patient care and other members of the health delivery team are negatively impacted. Being overly irritable with co-workers and family members as well as feeling a loss of the compassion and the desire to help others – the reason many go into medicine in the first place – can all be indicators of burnout.
Advocating for physicians is the primary goal of our organization, and I recognize that the Medical Society is duty bound to focus on the issue of physicians’ well-being. We will be expanding services and educational opportunities related to physicians’ mental and emotional well-being and to help them reconnect with the joy of practicing medicine. We’re raising money to develop specific programs to deal with the causes and symptoms of burnout.
The relationship I, and many people, have with their physician is sacred. We trust them as confidantes, healers and helpers. This was made clear to me at my physician’s visitation. The line of mourners stretched out the door, with some of his patients, friends and colleagues waiting for more than three hours to pay their respects to this kind, compassionate man. Doctors care for us selflessly. But we can’t forget they are human, too, and need our empathy.
The NCMS is fully committed to seeing physicians receive the support they personally need, so they can continue to support and care for those who depend on them.
Robert W. Seligson is executive vice president and CEO of the North Carolina Medical Society.
Want to help?
Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The N.C. Medical Society is raising money to develop specific programs to deal with the causes and symptoms of burnout.