Doctors Are In Pain: A Different Perspective on Why We Should Address Burnout

Thoughts from Lori Murphy, Senior Director, on her experience at the ACPH Finding Joy in Medicine conference (San Francisco, Oct 12-13, 2017)


A group of over 400 healthcare leaders – the majority physicians – convened in the smoky particulate plume of San Francisco last week to attend the American Conference on Physician Health. The theme this year was “Finding Joy in Medicine.” The atmosphere was thick with awareness of the tragic Sonoma County fires that had been burning for days mixed with the electric charge of high expectations for the hopeful healthcare content to be presented.

Many attendees were local and had personal stories of the fires; the CEO at Sutter Health, Sarah Krevans, MBA, shared with the crowd that her team had to evacuate Sutter Health Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. And yet, this sold-out conference and a packed auditorium spoke volumes. Even in the midst of such community trauma, every single attendee knew that this conference was not to be missed.

Sessions crossed between three themes: Culture of Wellness, Personal Resilience, and Efficiency of Practice.

The opening keynote was delivered by Vivek Murthy, MD, 19th U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Murthy talked about emotional wellbeing as a foundation for individuals, groups, and communities; and when we weigh structural level interventions against personal level interventions, we are cutting ourselves short. According to Dr. Murthy, we need both. For example, Murthy posed the question, “Do our doctors really have all of the tools to solve their patients’ problems?” If a doctor tells a patient who is overweight to take more walks, but they live in a community with high levels of violence, is that not telling a patients to do something that they can’t safely do? How demoralizing that is for our doctors and our patients! The truth is, structural issues routinely get in the way of well-meaning recommendations for personal interventions.

Another outstanding talk was Tait Shanafelt, MD’s plenary discussion about organizational approaches to promoting physician wellbeing. He talked about studies that show how important it is for physicians to find “meaning in work”, but the interesting tidbit is that it doesn’t have to be all day everyday; in fact, there is a 20% ceiling effect. That is to say, if physicians spend just 20% of their days doing what they love – where they find true meaning – the impact on reducing burnout and increasing professional satisfaction is significant. Dr. Shanafelt also explored the two-pronged effort to convince senior leadership to take action. There’s the business case: patient outcomes, medical errors, productivity; and there’s the ethical case: suicide rates, dialing back or leaving medicine.

These two days were jam-packed with speakers such as Robert Watcher, MD, discussing EHR and how it could be the cure to burnout by telling a story from his book, The Digital Doctor; Abraham Verghese, MD sharing a heartfelt personal story about one physician’s suicide; Christine Sinsky, MD reviewing a series of free toolkits from the AMA on practice redesign, finding joy in medicine, and nearly 50 more topics. Breakout sessions had provocative titles, with some, such as Economic Cost of Physician Turnover by a team at Stanford Medicine well beyond room capacity, stragglers on tiptoes trying to see into the room. (Spoiler alert: it’s pretty huge, even on the low range of economic impact!) Posters focused on a broad range of interventions, with a good representation from residency programs innovating on interventions.

These two days will hopefully lead to further scrutiny on the issues of burnout and depressingly low levels of joy in work for our physicians. But there is clear consensus that something must be done to address this huge problem – not just because of the demonstrated risk to patient safety or quality of care (though those reasons are good enough on their own). The reason we should care about burnout for our doctors is because doctors are in pain. That alone is why we must take action to bring the joy back to medicine.

Greenleaf Integrative is at the ready for action. Abuzz with studies from the brightest minds in medicine, we partner with healthcare organizations to create meaningful, lasting change in medical professionals’ wellbeing. We are excited to be part of the solution!

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