Meet the Doctor Who’s Preventing Burnout By Changing Medical Culture

Dr. Rahul Sharma, Emergency Physician-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says doctor burnout is common, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable.

Image courtesy of  Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm/ Getty Images

Doctors have been facing burnout for generations, but it wasn’t until the last few years that people started talking about the epidemic that’s taken over the medical field. “I think we’ve gotten to a point with social media and various ways of communication that people feel comfortable talking about it,” says Dr. Rahul Sharma, MD, Chairman of Emergency Medicine, and Emergency Physician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.

The global epidemic of burnout affects countless communities and industries, but if you peek inside the emergency wing of the hospital, it is especially prevalent. The stigma surrounding the psychological and mental struggles that emergency doctors face is starting to decrease, but doctors like Sharma have been in the field long enough to know that this issue is one that needs to be addressed.

“If you’re in an environment where people aren’t free to speak up or be open, then it doesn’t matter how much you do, you won’t be successful,” Dr. Sharma tells Thrive Global. The first step in reducing stigma is creating an environment that addresses it.

The second step is taking action. Dr. Sharma has devised many innovative Emergency Department and hospital initiatives over the years, and his most recent program, designed to combat burnout among faculty, was inspired by emergency medicine’s mental and physical demands. When we sat down with Dr. Sharma to hear about his initiative, he told us about some of the main reasons for burnout in the medical field. “Work hours is one aspect, and system issues with efficiency is another,” Sharma says. “If you’re an ER physician, the volume of most emergency departments has continued to rise across the country. Hospitals are full. Many hospitals don’t have beds. All of these system capacity issues end up having an impact on clinicians. Our front-line staff are the ones who have to deal with these things.”

Dr. Sharma’s initiative to prevent burnout among doctors stemmed from the results he saw from the Maslach Burnout Inventory Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS), which measured doctors’ feelings of exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment. The hospital’s faculty members each shared the hours of their shifts, the nature of their jobs, and the mental struggles they faced in their demanding positions. “One thing we found by surveying our faculty was that there were many opportunities for improvement in terms of staffing, environment, as well as social interactions,” Sharma notes. “We developed a comprehensive program that addressed each aspect of these areas where our faculty wanted some improvement. In terms of schedules, there were certain shifts that ended at 1:30am. Leaving the hospital at 1:30am and coming home when your entire family is sleeping and traveling at night sometimes isn’t the best. We changed some of our shifts.”

In addition to shift changes, Dr. Sharma’s program was also designed to implement breaks throughout the day, ensuring that each doctor gets twenty minutes of downtime in between patients. “Just a little break like that can have such a big impact on recharging,” says Dr. Sharma. “Whether it’s you lying down in the lounge or just making a phone call, it makes a tremendous impact on how our physicians and clinicians function during their shift.”

The next change? Support groups. “We found that part of burnout is not only the patients you’re seeing, but also other things that come with it. Many physicians go through depression and loneliness. We created a support group for our faculty going through tough times,” Sharma says. The support groups are intended to help doctors cope with the mental hardships of the field, and Dr. Sharma wanted to include resilience training in the process as well. “We brought in experts to do some mindfulness workshops, where we did meditation before our faculty meetings,” he says. Even those who were skeptical of the untraditional rituals became believers once they saw the impact they had on the doctors. “All of these interventions do have an impact on our overall wellness,” Sharma explains.

Dr. Sharma’s well-being program is changing his hospital’s work culture, but he emphasizes that depression and burnout among doctors are core aspects of the medical field that are too often ignored. Common indications of burnout include “exhaustion, fatigue, [and] loss of a sense of personal accomplishment,” but those symptoms can easily go untreated if practitioners don’t say something and seek help. Dr. Sharma notes that even if you don’t have all the components of burnout, you should still speak up, and get help. 

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