What ails the medical profession—and ways to heal it

Steven J. Stack, MD , Former President

It’s ironic and deeply distressing that the very people who have devoted their lives to keeping others healthy are most at risk of suffering from the work-induced syndrome of burnout. As more than one-half of the medical community suffers from burnout—a percentage on the rise—it’s time to turn toward healing our own profession. Several medical societies have begun to do just that.

Prevalence and roots of the problem

A new study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that 54.4 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, up from 45.5 percent in 2011. In comparison, prevalence of burnout among the general working population was about 28.5 percent.

And physician burnout seems to be directly tied to our environment. Authors of the study, who are AMA and Mayo Clinic experts on physician burnout, note that future physicians begin medical school with mental health profiles that are better than those of college graduates who pursue other fields. But those profiles are reversed within two years of beginning med school.

Similarly, a study the AMA released with the RAND Corporation in 2013 found that the major drivers of professional dissatisfaction among physicians were environmentally driven barriers to providing high-quality care, such as burdensome governmental regulations, insurers that refuse to cover medically necessary services and unsupportive practice leadership.

What’s being done to address the problem

The findings of studies such as these beg the question, “What can be done to prevent physician burnout?”

The AMA has made physicians’ wellness and ability to thrive a top priority. In fact, one of our three strategic focus areas is Professional Satisfaction and Practice Sustainability. As part of this initiative, we have created our STEPS Forward™ collection of online modules, which offer proven solutions by physicians for physicians.

Three modules are specifically focused on physician wellness: One gives steps for preventing burnout, another module outlines solutions for enhancing joy in practice and mitigating stress, and a third module focuses on ways to promote the well-being of physicians in training.

Other modules provide ways to improve elements of your practice environment that can be risk factors for burnout, such as improving work flow through team documentation, expanded rooming and discharge protocols, pre-visit planning, and synchronized prescription renewal.

We’re also hosting the International Conference on Physician Health™ Sept. 18-20 in Boston. This collaborative conference of the AMA, the Canadian Medical Association and the British Medical Association will explore the theme “Increasing Joy in Medicine.” The conference showcases research and perspectives into physicians’ health and offers practical, evidence-based skills and strategies to promote a healthier medical culture for physicians.

If you’re interested in presenting, abstract submissions are welcome through Feb. 1 for research and perspectives into physicians’ health as well as practical, evidence-based skills and strategies that focus on staying healthy.

Other medical associations are offering practical ways to help physicians as well. My own specialty of emergency medicine is the hardest hit by burnout, and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) has created the 2016 Emergency Medicine Wellness Week™ to give all emergency physicians and their colleagues an opportunity to take the time to self-renew while staying dedicated to the highest quality patient care. 

This event will take place Jan. 24-30. You can visit the wellness week website to sign up for daily wellness tips, print a personal pledge card, find resources and videos about better wellness, and share your stories of personal improvement.

At the local level, physicians may find additional programs or resources. In my hometown, the Lexington Medical Society in Kentucky began offering its Physician Wellness Program this year. Designed as a safe harbor, the program gives members of the society up to six free, anonymous counselling sessions each calendar year so they can address normal life difficulties in a confidential and professional environment at a local psychiatry group. This program is modeled after a highly successful program of the Lane County Medical Society in Eugene, Oregon.

Take steps to improve your well-being today

As we look to the year ahead, I encourage you to make your own health and well-being a top priority.

First, be sure to learn the eight things that can put you at risk of burnout, regardless of your career stage.

Next, familiarize yourself with the resources that can help you in your current situation. Whether you choose to use the STEPS Forward modules, participate in the ACEP wellness week, attend the International Conference on Physician Health, or take advantage of counseling or other wellness programs, be sure to make the most of the resources available to you.

As service-oriented people, we physicians often put our own needs after those of others. But it’s important for us to be physically and mentally well both for ourselves and for the many people who rely on us—our families, our friends and our patients. Make this a New Year’s resolution you keep. Putting your well-being first is essential for keeping those you care about healthy.