Well-Being//

A Conversation on Burnout in Medicine

“It is important that we don’t lose the heart of medicine.”

 Getty, Science Photo Library

Thrive Global’s mission is to end the stress and burnout epidemic by offering companies and individuals sustainable, science-based solutions to enhance well-being, performance, and purpose, and create a healthier relationship with technology. Recent science has shown that the pervasive belief that burnout is the price we must pay for success is a delusion. We know, instead, that when we prioritize our well-being, our decision-making, creativity, and productivity improve dramatically.

In order to fully understand the global burnout epidemic, it’s imperative that we closely examine the professional and personal communities it affects. As part of our ongoing research, I spoke with Patricia Fitzgerald, Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and Certified Clinical Nutritionist about her personal definition of burnout, how she’s seen it manifest in her work, and what she hopes Thrive Global readers will understand from learning about her experience.

Thrive Global: How do you define burnout?
Patricia Fitzgerald: I define burnout as too much output without recharging, too much focus on doing versus being, productivity versus presence, losing touch with a healthy flow in life, responding to outer perceived demands vs. inner guidance, I could go on….

TG: What is your experience with burnout?
PF:
I’ve seen it increase in the culture in general as well as with patients specifically. I see patterns in my practice developing before they become cultural trends. I started noticing more and more patients reporting that they were feeling stressed on a regular basis; more patients were reporting sleep disturbances, and more patients were reporting that they were feeling tired all of the time. I also noticed that the age where patients started reporting these patterns started becoming younger and younger. So I have been addressing this issue of burnout with my patients for many years now. A lot of the office visit includes lifestyle counseling relating to energy management.

TG: Do you think burnout is particularly acute among people working in medicine? Is yes, why do you think that may be the case?
PF:
I know that burnout is prevalent in the medical profession. The pressure in some practices to see more and more patients for shorter periods of time, insurance companies often influencing care more than the doctors, the increase [of] electronic records, decreasing human interaction, and the prevalence of chronic illness among many patients requiring more than what can be offered in a short office visit are some of the factors that I believe are contributing to burnout. Most doctors I know entered the profession to serve the greater good. They wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives. While data is important, it is important not to lose the heart of medicine. Medicine is an art and a science, a dance between the known and unknown, hard data and infinite possibilities, and that dance must not be stifled for healing to occur.

TG: At your place of work, what type of protocols are in place to prevent exhaustion among health professionals? Do you find the protocols to be helpful?
PF:
In our practice, we don’t overbook patients, and we schedule in a way that allows the practitioners to give the patient they are seeing their full attention. This is something we have prioritized since the beginning of our practice. I was noticed a trend away from that in the early years of my practice, and correspondingly, I was noticing my colleagues reporting more stress if their practices were run in a way that fueled physician burnout. Being in the preventative medicine field, I tend to think preventatively, and I remember thinking, I don’t want to lose my passion, I want to make sure that doesn’t happen in our practice. I believe that having that intention and knowing what we stand for keeps us in check. I have been in practice for over 25 years and feel more inspired than ever. Also, I want to add that myself and our practitioners practice good self care as well. We are interested in wellness as a way of life, not just something we provide in our practice. Our practice is called the Santa Monica Wellness Center, and when we chose that name over 25 years ago, the word wellness was not used very much in the culture.

TG: I’ve read that the presence of technology may contribute to feelings of burnout in the medical field. Have you felt that way in the past?
PF:
As we starting transitioning to EHR (electronic health records), I was looking forward to replacing those clunky charts with a more streamlined approach. The ironic thing was that when I first opened the iPad as I was preparing for the first patient on EHR, I felt a visceral sense of dread in my whole being which surprised me. I realized how much of a barrier it put up between my heart-to-heart connection with the patient. I made a commitment then to figure out a way not to compromise the patient experience, and I have figured out ways to do that. Another element that technology can contribute to burnout I believe is the fact that patients are googling and asking more and more questions based on google research. There are benefits to this as well as limitations. I spend a lot of time clearing up and confusion and also having to weed through some of the choices they have made from internet supplement purchases as well as purchasing services online from people who are often unqualified. So there is extra damage control. I don’t feel burned out by this aspect yet, however it takes time away from the patient visit that could be used more productively.

TG: What is one takeaway that you hope our readers have from this conversation?
PF:
As our healthcare system is in flux, I hope the people reading this know that they need to be their own best navigator of the system. Ask a lot of questions. Take notes. Come prepared to your appointment. You might only have a short time with your doctor, make the most of it. Consider getting a second or third opinion. There are a lot of great practitioners out there, but sometimes it takes a while to find the right practitioner or team. And most importantly, please take good care of yourself every day.

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