Posts Tagged ‘Physician burnout’

“Each man or woman is ill in his or her own way,” Dr. Abraham Verghese told the audience at the opening session of ANESTHESIOLOGY 2019, the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. In his address, titled “Humanistic Care in a Technological Age,” Dr. Verghese said, “What patients want is recognition from us that their illness is at least somewhat unique.”

Though we in anesthesiology have only limited time to see patients before the start of surgery, Dr. Verghese reassured listeners that this time has profound and immense value. He pointed out that there is “heightened drama around each patient” in the preoperative setting. “Everything you do matters so much,” he said. What patients look for are signs of good intentions and competence, and the key elements are simple: “the tone of voice, warmth, putting a hand on the patient.”

Dr. Verghese, a professor of internal medicine at Stanford University and the acclaimed author of novels including the best-selling Cutting for Stone, believes that patient dissatisfaction and physician burnout are the inevitable consequences of today’s data-driven healthcare system, where physicians seldom connect with patients on a personal level or perform a thoughtful, unhurried physical examination. “Our residents average 60 percent of their time on the medical record,” he said.

“It’s the ‘4000 clicks’ problem,” Dr. Verghese said, citing a study in which emergency room physicians averaged 4000 mouse clicks over a 10-hour shift, and spent 43 percent of their time on data entry but only 28 percent in direct patient contact.

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For several years now, I’ve been the social media curmudgeon in medicine. In a 2011 New York Times op-ed titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job”, I argued that working part-time or leaving medicine goes against our obligation to patients and to the American taxpayers who subsidize graduate medical education to the tune of $15 billion per year.

But today, eight years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I’m more sympathetic to the physicians who are giving up on medicine by cutting back on their work hours or leaving the profession altogether. Experts cite all kinds of reasons for the malaise in American medicine:  burnout, user-unfriendly electronic health records, declining pay, loss of autonomy. I think the real root cause lies in our country’s worsening anti-intellectualism.

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Did it ever occur to some of today’s physicians that many people work awfully hard and complain a lot less than they do about “burnout” and “work-life balance”?

Did it ever occur to them that “work-life balance” is the very definition of a first-world problem, unique to a very privileged class of highly educated people, most of whom are white?

Every day, I go to work and see the example of the nurses and technicians who work right alongside me in tough thoracic surgery cases. Zanetta, for instance, is the single mother of five children. She leaves her 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. and then faces a 60-mile commute to get home. She never complains, and unfailingly takes the extra moment to get a warm blanket for a patient or cheerfully help out a colleague. When I leave work, I see the gardeners who arrive in battered pickup trucks and mow lawns in the Los Angeles summer heat for slim pay and no benefits. I can’t imagine these people wasting time worrying about work-life balance. They’re too busy working.

Or look at what it’s like to work in one of the world’s top restaurants. Edward Frame, now a graduate student in social research, described his first job in a Michelin-starred kitchen for an article in the New York Times.

“I worked in a small alcove, connected to the dishwasher,” he wrote. “Glass racks came out, I wiped away any watermarks or smudges, and then, just as I finished one rack, another appeared. This went on for hours, like some kind of Sisyphean fable revised for the hospitality industry. By hour two my fingers hurt and my back ached. But I couldn’t stop. The racks kept coming. Slowing down never occurred to me. There wasn’t time. I needed to make it nice. I wanted to make it nice.”

Let’s face it—a lot of people have jobs much worse than being a physician. Apparently, they don’t expect to be coddled or to receive much sympathy about their rate of burnout, or their lack of “work-life balance”. Nor do they expect that workplace expectations will be altered just to suit them.

I can’t imagine having the gall to complain about how tough it is to be a physician when all you have to do is open your eyes and see what’s all around us:  people working incredibly hard, making far less money than we do, and then returning home to face the responsibilities of family life, child care, housework, home maintenance, and everything else.

We—physicians—thankfully can afford help with these tasks. The Medscape Physician Compensation Report for 2015 reported that the average compensation for a primary care physician was $195,000 and for a specialist $284,000.

When I was a new faculty member making an instructor’s salary right after residency, it’s true that I didn’t have a lot of take-home pay left after I made monthly payments for student loans, private pre-school for two children, housecleaning help, and a full-time nanny to provide transportation and after-school care. The full-time nanny was essential because a child with a bad cold or an upset stomach needs to stay home, and a physician can’t drop everything to stay home too. These were investments that my husband and I made because we felt that being a physician is important work.

But in medicine, the prevailing wisdom today is that the rigorous culture of the past needs to change—along with the expectation of dedication to duty, long work hours, and stoicism—because it’s all just too difficult and we risk getting burned out.

Now Stanford University has started a new “time-banking” program designed to ease pressure on faculty physicians and basic science professors. As admiringly described by reporter Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post, the program allows faculty members to “bank” hours that they spend on uncompensated activities such as committee work and earn credits to use for support services at home or work.

Dr. Gregory Gilbert, an emergency physician who was the poster child for the Post article, used his credits for delivery of meals to his home, housecleaning services, and employing a “life coach” to help him “find better balance in his life”.

Wait just a minute. I’m sure that Dr. Gilbert is a good person—a divorced father trying to be a conscientious physician and spend time with his children. He must be a smart guy if he’s on the faculty at Stanford. Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Gilbert couldn’t figure out how to order food delivery and arrange for housecleaning before Stanford came up with this program?

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Dr. Margaret Wood, who chairs the Department of Anesthesiology at Columbia University Medical Center, has published a wonderful article titled “Women in Medicine:  Then and Now“, in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia.

I think I speak for many of us in admitting that Anesthesia and Analgesia doesn’t occupy a prominent place on my bedside table. Many readers may have missed Dr. Wood’s article. That’s a shame, because it isn’t just about anesthesiology, and speaks to issues in medicine independent of specialty or gender. Here are some of my favorite passages about lessons she learned over the course of her long and successful career:

“1. It is important to have a passion for what you do if you strive for excellence. If you have that passion, then the efforts do not feel like a sacrifice and “burnout” is not an issue. I cannot imagine that Virginia Apgar spent a single moment talking, thinking, or worrying about burnout.

2. The current fashion to complain about “life balance” can be self-destructive; however, pacing oneself is critical. You can have it all, just not all at once. The Chairman of Anatomy gave the inaugural lecture to my incoming class of medical students. His thesis was that as a physician/medical student you could have (i) an active time-consuming social life, (ii) a family, and (iii) a career, but to be successful you should have no more than two of these at the same time. I believe this to be true and have followed this advice since.

3. Women should be careful not to fall into the trap of feeling entitled to special considerations or engage in special pleadings. Our patients want their physician to be the best, whatever his or her sex. There is no room for a physician of either sex who is less qualified or less committed because of outside responsibilities.

4. Women no longer need to “prove themselves” against the sea of doubters who dominated medicine 40 years ago. Fortunately, we are now past that point and such doubts, are I hope, antediluvian. Women are where they are today, however, because many of us felt that demonstrating that women really could “do it” was a moral imperative and one to which we were fully committed.

5. Parents need to manage their work and family responsibilities to ensure that both receive their full attention. This will often mean ensuring that they have excellent childcare to allow them to have the confidence to focus on work when that is required. This may be expensive, but it is a critical investment by both parents in their family’s future. Successfully raising children is a joint responsibility of both partners; what is critical to women is also critical to men, and vice versa. Women starting out on this journey can be assured that it is possible to raise well-adjusted children in a home in which both partners have challenging and successful careers, provided there is a true partnership in the family.”

Is Dr. Wood a curmudgeon, or perhaps a dinosaur? That could be, but I find her honesty refreshing.

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Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, believes with good reason that many physicians have become “like everybody else:  insecure, discontented and anxious about the future.”  In a recent, widely-circulated column in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Doctors Are Sick of Their Profession,” he explains how medicine has become simply a job, not a calling, for many physicians; how their pay has declined, how the majority now say they wouldn’t advise their children to enter the medical profession, and how this malaise can’t be good for patients.

Dr. Jauhar gets it right in many ways, but the solutions he recommends miss their mark completely.

I was 100% in accord with Dr. Jauhar when he argued that “there are many measures of success in medicine:  income, of course, but also creating attachments with patients, making a difference in their lives and providing good care while responsibly managing limited resources.”

The next paragraph, though, I read with astonishment.  Does Dr. Jauhar really believe that publicizing surgeons’ mortality rates or physicians’ readmission rates can be “incentive schemes” that will reduce physician burnout?  Does he seriously think that “giving rewards for patient satisfaction” will put the joy back into practicing medicine?

If so, I’m afraid he doesn’t understand the problem that he set out to solve.

The truth behind “quality” metrics

There is no question that some physicians are inherently more talented, more dedicated, and more skilled than others.  In every hospital, if you speak to staff members privately, they’ll tell you which surgeon to see for a slipped disk, a kidney transplant, or breast cancer.  They’ll tell you which of the anesthesiologists they trust most, and which cardiologist they would recommend to someone with chest pain.  But none of these recommendations are based on simplistic metrics like readmission rates or even mortality rates.  They are based on observations over time of the physicians’ ability, integrity, and conscientiousness–all of which are tough to quantify.

Let’s take, for example, a common operation such as laparoscopic cholecystectomy:  removal of the gallbladder using cameras and instruments inserted through small incisions in the abdomen.  This is a procedure which most general surgeons perform often, with few complications.

When complications occur, there are almost always factors involved other than surgical error.  Patients with diabetes are more likely to develop wound infections, for instance.  Surgery on patients who have had prior abdominal operations may take longer and could cause bleeding or damage to other internal organs because of scar tissue.  Morbid obesity and advanced age are risk factors too.

The surgeon whose mortality rates are higher, or whose patients are more likely to be readmitted to the hospital, may be dealing with a much different patient population from the surgeon with the lowest rates.  An inner-city hospital may admit more patients as emergency cases, in more advanced stages of disease.

It’s difficult for statistics to reflect accurately the dramatic differences among patients that affect surgical outcome.  A noncompliant patient who doesn’t fill prescriptions and follow instructions is more likely to have problems, independent of the experience and skill of the surgeon.  Trying to distinguish among surgeons with “outcomes data” will only result in more surgeons refusing to operate on high-risk patients.

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