Caring For Those Who Care For Us

Keeping the caregiving flame alive.

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Photo credit: Takasu
Photo credit: Takasu

People come to the calling of health care from all walks of life and for myriad reasons, but they all have one thing in common: a desire to make lives better. It is a passion that burns bright in physicians. It is a thirst for knowledge and a quest for excellence, a desire to practice medicine resulting in meaningful, positive impacts for patients. To put it simply, we want our patients to live happy, healthy, productive lives.

Unfortunately, along with that passion, dedication, and drive to heal comes pressure (perfectionists make great physicians) and with that pressure, the burning flame can fade and, eventually, burn out. We’ve all heard the term burnout. It’s the name we give to chronic stress, but it is so much more. Symptoms include emotional and physical exhaustion, insomnia, loss of appetite, loss of focus, anxiety, depression, and detachment. Medical errors are more than twice as likely if a physician is experiencing burnout. This can have catastrophic implications for patients’ well-being and further accelerate feelings of burnout for physicians. 

Health care professionals are in the business of saving lives, and yet many are not getting what they need for their own wellness. They are suffering – often in silence. This is tragically evidenced by the fact that physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession. It’s higher than the rate for those who have served in the military and more than double the general population. We don’t talk it about it enough, but we’re finally starting to talk about it more.

At Kaiser Permanente, where I have had the privilege to practice medicine my entire career, we have created a robust offering of programs and initiatives to better support our physicians. While we have made progress, we know there is also so much more to do. The issue of burnout is complex and requires a multitude of solutions. 

Because the patterns and stresses that contribute to burnout begin appearing in medical school, we are doing what we can to address burnout early. Our Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine will take a holistic approach in our curriculum for the health and wellness of our students as well as the patients they serve. We will prepare a new generation of physicians to influence positive change within the U.S. health care system, and we will take care of them along the way.

Medicine isn’t going to get any less complex (in fact, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. I’ll talk about this in my next article.) A perfect example of this is the advent of the electronic medical record. In an integrated system like Kaiser Permanente’s, a shared electronic medical record system makes it easier to connect care providers and patients to their health information. At the same time, learning how to use the system, receiving and responding to an ever-increasing number of emails, test results, best practice alerts and associated administrative duties – while incredibly important and worthwhile – takes time. Not only that, these tasks take time away from a physician’s greatest joy: spending time with and caring for patients. We need to continue to find ways to make accessing care and service convenient for patients, while ensuring physicians can effectively and efficiently practice medicine.

It is not easy and there is still much to do. We are actively working to improve the systems that contribute to this issue. We are talking about the prevalence and seriousness of burnout, working to remove stigma, and offering resources to help.  The good news is this: each and every one of us can be an ally to our healers. Affirming our physician’s humanity, letting them know we see them and we care for their wellbeing, can make an enormous difference. So do this for me: The next time you are with your physician, take a moment to look her or him in the eye and say “thank you.” That simple gesture means more than you know and will help that caregiving flame burn bright.

To see a more in-depth discussion on this important topic, you can view Dr. Ellison’s 2017 TED Talk from TEDxNaperville.

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