3 Tips for Burned Out Surgeons to Communicate with their Bosses

Surgeon Communication Tips

When surgeons experience burnout, it can impact their ability to communicate effectively. That goes for patients, as well as co-workers and bosses. Whether you’re dealing with a ranking doctor, or a hospital administrator, it can be difficult to communicate effectively with your boss when you’re burnt out. In this article, we are going to discuss a few tips for communicating with your boss if you are feeling burnt out in your practice. Keep in mind that I am not taking sides.

Be Polite

Burnout is often coupled with stress and anxiety, which can cause some doctors to be rude or curt when talking with their co-workers or boss. Always do your best to be polite when you are talking with your boss (or your co-workers for that matter). Our goal here is to lessen your stress!

Explain How You Feel

It’s also helpful to talk to your boss (or a colleague) and explain to them what you are feeling. I don’t deny that this might be quite challenging. Empathy is not a principle exclusive to patient communication. Lower emotional intelligence/empathy and poor communication are correlated, and burnout is more common in environments that have these weaknesses. Someone has to break the ice. If your boss even understands just a little better how you’re feeling, they may be able to offer assistance or support.

Ask for Help if you Need it

I need you to step out of your shoes and take an independent perspective. If you think your boss truly has the desire and ability to help you be as successful at your job as possible, then don’t be afraid to talk with your boss about a recovery plan. If you think your boss is challenged in their empathy or resources to help, you may need to work with others. Either way, your goal is to improve communication through mutual understanding. You might arrange regular brief meetings that allow you to share the factors that are contributing to your decreased job satisfaction, such as: excessive paperwork, EHR, or long work hours.

Preventing Surgeon Burnout

Burnout can be damaging and debilitating for any surgeon. I know from my own experiences throughout my decades of work in medical school, training, and private practice. Through these experiences, I have crafted a methodology called The 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons that is meant to help surgeons prevent and recover from burnout. This methodology can be utilized by any physician in any sub-specialty and aims to help you find rhythm between your work and family life so you can get the most out of both. Contact me today to talk about The 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons and how they can be applied to your practice.

Three Pearls for Patient Engagement

In surgery, we use the term “PEARL” to describe a very helpful piece of advice.

Recently I received not one…not two…but THREE PEARLS on the subject of “patient engagement” from fellow surgeon, Dr. Dan Stinner, who I had the pleasure of running into at the Orthopaedic Trauma Association 2016 in National Harbor. 

With Dan’s permission, I’ve taken the three PEARLS he offered me, and put my own unique spin on them for this article. 

But before I jump into talking about those PEARLS, let me take a moment to introduce Dr. Dan.

Meet Dr. Dan Stinner

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from West Point, Dr. Stinner attended the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. He completed his orthopaedic residency at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, including a year of orthopaedic trauma research at the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research. Dan then completed his fellowship in Orthopaedic Trauma at Vanderbilt University, and he served as Assistant Professor of Surgery at the San Antonio Military Medical Center. Today, Dan works as Chairman of the OTA Military Committee, and is on-assignment in London on behalf of the US Army. 

And now that our introduction is over, here are three PEARLS to better patient engagement.

Pearl #1—Make a Connection (Something About Them)

Every surgeon’s goal is to provide truly superior care -  care that infuses patients with confidence and complete trust.

Surgeons rarely forget that their obligation is to the patient and the patient’s well-being, but they don’t always successfully establish that “personal” connection. 

Jot a note in the record (or your rounding list) about the patient’s personal life. Mention it with curiosity during the next visit, and watch for the emotional connection. Take a moment to actually sit down with them and truly listen, and doing so ensure your body language is consistent with your verbal language.

Pearl #2—Make a Connection (Something About You)

What are the boundaries? What is too personal? How do you share something about you? 

Surgeons tend to be both modest and highly critical of themselves, despite the more braggadocios personality-type typically projected in those hospital dramas on TV. That’s what makes the biosheet (see attached) so great. It is a convenient way for surgeons to introduce their credentials and expertise without being remotely arrogant.  

The biosheet can also be an opportunity to offer a personal statement explaining who you are, what you do, and what your passions (hobbies) are outside of work. 

When seeking shared decision making, the biosheet is something tangible for patients to hold onto and draw confidence and connection from. 

Pearl #3—Provide Supplemental Information (Something More)

Being a successful surgeon means adhering to a number of demands, and those demands mean only a limited amount of time can be spent with each patient.

To make up for that limited face time and to ensure you’re maximizing engagement with each patient, leave them with supplemental information or resources they can use to learn more about anything related to their surgery, including you.

Whether by clarifying expectations or stimulating patients to ask questions relevant to their care, the supplemental information will always lead to more effective shared decision-making. The better patients can understand what they’re facing in terms of a surgical condition and treatment, the more likely they are to positively engage with the healing experience. 

Improving Civility in Our Social Media

Communicating with mutual understanding—It’s not always easy but it IS important.  

Unfortunately, many of us have lost sight of that importance. 

Communicating in a Politically-Charged Climate

Amidst today’s charged political and social climates, it’s all too easy to casually brush aside (or even flat-out disregard) communication that runs contrary to our personal belief system. 

Especially when the technologies we rely on so heavily to facilitate that communication—gChat, SMS, iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, etc—create broad degrees of separation between ideas and individuals. We don’t see the person disagreeing with us, only their Twitter handle, their profile picture, or the bright green text bubble populating our message window.

Think about it—in a world dominated by the platforms of social and digital media, how rare is it to perceive an opinion as a valid offering from another human being? And how common is it to perceive an opinion as an invalid antagonism offered by some nameless, faceless entity? 

Mutual Understanding & True Communication

The former facilitates mutual understanding and true communication, while the latter dismisses both.

When two parties fail to engage in true communication—when they only make an effort to press their ideas upon opponents—they fail to cultivate an environment of mutual understanding. They succeed only in cultivating an environment of misunderstanding, anger, and spite, which furthers political, social, and cultural divides.

We must seek mutual understanding in our communication if we are to create an atmosphere of openness and resolution. 

An Example

To help frame the importance of this principle, I’d like you to examine the following Facebook post: 


Just imagine for a moment how ornery and callous this conversation could have gone if both Robert and BJ were not men of openness —willing to engage in non-combative conversation in order to come to terms with each other’s perception? A willingness to employ mutual understanding unlocked the door to civility and diplomacy here.

If you want to learn more about mutual understanding, and the PRACTICE required to successfully implement it in your life, check out Webinar #6: The 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons— Masters Class - Communication with Mutual Understanding.

- Jeff