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My New Year’s Prescription for You

My New Year’s Prescription for You

From the Editor

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t find New Year’s celebrations particularly energizing, and I’m usually just trying to slog through the coldest and darkest time of the year until I can get back to working in my garden in March. So, I don’t have any particular resolutions this year. But now that Janus is looking forward and I am thinking about what a hard year 2015 has been for everyone, I’ll have a prescription at the end of this column.

The world seems more chaotic than usual, including the weather (today I cut what I think are the last blooming roses of the year on a 70-degree day in mid-December). Fear is rising everywhere it seems, the US political process seems much scarier than usual, and the practice of medicine is getting more and more onerous. The stresses related to medical practice alone, even without living in a crazy time, have mounted over the past decade.

One of the very problematic results of work stress is “burnout,” shorthand for a complex group of various feelings and symptoms. These have been well described in a Studer Group report, Physician Burnout: Preparing for a “Perfect Storm,”1 (available free on the Internet) and include:

©Daniela Barreto/shutterstock.com©Daniela Barreto/shutterstock.com
• Physical and emotional exhaustion

• Headaches

• Inability to concentrate

• Depression or anxiety

• Irritability

• Chronic complaining or blaming

• Explosions of anger

• Insomnia

• Drug or alcohol abuse

• Loss of passion for work and increasing cynicism

• Emotional disengagement

• (When severe) suicidal thoughts or behaviors

There’s clearly an overlap with the symptoms we generally characterize as relating to depression.

The triggers for burnout have also been well described (see the Studer Group report) and include increasingly intense or heavy workload; pressure related to health care reform and/or technology changes; lack of control over time; inefficient or hostile work environment; lack of support at work or at home; isolation and lack of connection with colleagues; feeling unappreciated and unrewarded; perceiving work policies as unfair; lack of alignment between the physician’s personal value system and the organization’s value system; consistently putting patient care before oneself; grief or guilt because of negative patient outcomes; and financial stress.

Because many psychiatrists still practice solo—likely more than other physicians these days—isolation during practice hours may be either more of a stress or a respite from institutional practice life.

Our University Hospital Chief of Staff recently told me that she has never seen burnout higher than this past year across the entire staff—even among doctors just starting their careers. This is a major national problem. I said I’d be glad to work with her to develop a plan, since it seems no one has found anything that has had a major beneficial impact. Finding workable remedies has become urgent.

A recent online posting from Washington Post reporter Lena H. Sun2 illustrates that we have a national crisis percolating around physician burnout. Ms Sun cites a 2014 Mayo Clinic/American Medical Association3 study that found “higher measures on the classic signs of professional burnout” than in a similar 2011 study. More than half the doctors reported being “emotionally exhausted and ineffective.” A similar number reported loss of meaning in their work. The 2011 study found that burnout criteria were met in 45% of doctors compared with 54% in the 2014 study.

Ms Sun also reported that a JAMA analysis revealed that almost a third of residents met positive screening criteria for burnout or met some depression criteria during their training.4 One of the factors cited was the diminishing time available for direct patient care and increased computer-based documentation requirements. That problem of course is hardly limited to new physicians. Many of our staff report that as little as 10% of their clinical time is spent in direct patient interaction because of the time required for electronic records.

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