We must care for ourselves as we care for our patients
by Patricia Wyatt-Harris, MD —
I wrote a column at the end of February about physician burnout. But as the coronavirus pandemic started taking hold in this country, we decided not to run that article because COVID issues were more important at the time.
I cited in the column a technology problem as one of many things that lead to burnout. That issue seems trivial now, but I think burnout is still very real and is important to address – especially during this pandemic.
In addition to the everyday frustrations we have at the office, such as prior authorizations and EMR issues, we now have to deal with increased stress due to the pandemic. We all have had to increase safety in our offices by having everyone wear masks, taking employee temperatures, installing sneeze guards and having new rules for patients. Many physicians are working long hours caring for patients who are battling COVID-19. Others may be facing financial pressures due to a reduction in patient visits or procedures.
Burnout is a chronic condition that can lead to physical and psychological symptoms. This description seems particularly accurate: “Burnout at its deepest level is not the result of some train wreck of examinations, long call shifts, or poor clinical situations. It is the sum total of hundreds of thousands of tiny betrayals of purpose, each one so minute that it hardly attracts notice.”
Symptoms of burnout are dysphoric and are similar to depression, anxiety, irritability and fatigue. This can lead to cynicism, impatience and negativism. Physicians suffering from burnout often try to cope by detaching from the job and becoming apathetic and skeptical.
The KU School of Medicine-Wichita conducted a survey of MSSC members last year related to burnout. In my opinion, the most worrisome piece of information was that five out of 197 respondents admitted to having had suicidal ideation. I suspect the number of physicians admitting to burnout may have increased since the pandemic started. After we lost a young internist to suicide last year, this issue gained even more urgency.
What can we do? We really have to watch for signs of burnout in ourselves and our colleagues.
The “community of practice” has changed so much in the past few years. One thing MSSC does is that it provides a place where we can participate in a community outside our individual offices. The Medical Society has also played a supportive role for physicians during COVID-19.
Another way to help is to watch for signs and symptoms of burnout in our colleagues. The Physicians Foundation came up with a set of “vital signs” to look for that use the HEART acronym: Health, Emotions, Attitude, Relationships and Temperament. If you notice major changes in any of these, start a conversation. We must continue to care for ourselves as we care for our patients.
MSSC organized a group of mental health professionals who are available to help in this stressful atmosphere. Please reach out to them or one of your colleagues if you are overwhelmed.