A recent article - “There is Something Rotten Inside the Medical Profession” - written by an anonymous physician and published on kevinmd.com, discussed the issues in the medical profession that can lead physicians to burnout and suicide. During my first 5 years in practice alone, I knew three physicians who committed suicide at my institution. One was a renowned burn surgeon who seemed, from a distance, superhuman - respected by patients, peers and trainees alike.
These experiences impact me deeply in many ways. I imagine their lives and experiences as surgeons were much like mine. Early in my career, I did not know what to make of it. At the time, I knew I was pretty unhappy, and I started getting a sense that I would rather get out than feel stuck in a job that could lead to me taking my own life. Now that I have been studying the issue for several years, I am much more knowledgeable on the causative factors.
Many doctors of all generations and at all points of their career feel they do not have many options. Often the feeling is if we admit to suffering or struggling, WE are the outlier. Simply wanting to talk to someone or seeking help suggests weakness or failure.
According to the article:
“Medical training has long had its culture rooted in ideals of suffering. Not so much for the patients — which is often sadly a given, but for the doctors training inside it. Every generation always looks down on the generation training after it — no one ever had it as hard as them, and thus deserve to suffer just as much, if not more. This dubious school of thought has long been acknowledged as standard practice. To be a good doctor, you must work harder, stay later, know more, and never falter. Weakness in medicine is a failing, and if you admit to struggling, the unspoken opinion (or often spoken) is that you simply couldn’t hack it.”
Surgeons, physicians and trainees voluntarily seeking help is very rare. There is a sense that if we do, there are potentially career-threatening consequences that await us. How does one go on when your lifelong dream is over? Mandatory reporting programs further discourage physicians from seeking help. If you don’t seek help, there is nothing to report.
How can we expect physicians to seek help if the system is set up to fail them? More importantly, how can we help each other?
What are Potential Positive Steps?
Let’s look at four potential positive steps we can take to improve the practice environment for physicians.
Stop the shame and stigma. We are all human. Burnout is not a weakness, but rather a symptom of chronic and/or acute injury or abuse. Show compassion to your peers.
Remove mandatory state reporting requirements. A mental health history should not disqualify anyone. Treated mental health issues are much much better than untreated and unrecognized. Current impairment may be an issue, but past impairment is not.
Offer mental health services to ALL health professionals and trainees.
WHAT IF all physicians were able to reach for support from psychiatrists, psychologists, coaches and others outside their institution or local environment to receive confidential assistance?
At SurgeonMasters, we are committed to helping physicians struggling with burnout. We offer coaching services, wellness programs, podcasts, webinars, and much more aimed at arming physicians with the tools they need to thrive in their careers.