How doctors have been conditioned to burn out

By Physician Sense, for MDLinx
Published August 29, 2018

Key Takeaways

What’s causing physician burnout? There’s no shortage of clickbaity listicles on the topic. This is not one of them.

With the rate of physician suicides standing at double that of the general population, the issue deserves more attention than that. The key to understanding physician burnout is understanding why it happens, so we can determine how to stop it.

That’s where Dike Drummond, MD, comes in. He’s a physician coach and consultant, helping doctors navigate their way through — and hopefully around — burnout. He’s the CEO of The Happy MD, author of Stop Physician Burnout and a burnout survivor himself, having walked away from a group practice in 2011 to start his company and help doctors.

There is no simple solution to diagnosing and treating physician burnout, Drummond says. He does see distinct patterns in the stresses that cause burnout, however. The first is the practice of medicine itself, and the depletion of what he calls “the energetic bank account.”

“It’s very, very rare for a physician to walk out of their practice at the end of the day with the same energy as when they walked in,” he says. “The practice of medicine is stressful all by itself.”

Job-specific stresses have to be considered as well. These include: EMRs, schedules, leadership quality and support staff caliber.

Next — and most often overlooked — are personal lives. “People can burn out at work and absolutely nothing has changed about the work itself,” he says. “You think you’re stressed as a doctor, let’s give your wife breast cancer and see how that works.” He recommends one of the questions all leaders ask a burned out colleague early and often is, “How is it going at home?”

Poor leadership is also often a factor. “People don’t quit the company, they quit their boss,” Drummond says.

The final pattern Drummond sees is the conditioning created by healthcare education itself. “We’re conditioned to be super hero, workaholic, Lone Ranger, perfectionists,” Drummond says. “Nobody teaches the off switch on doctor. A workaholic only has one coping mechanism and that’s to work harder.”

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