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Preventing Burnout in Doctors Young and Old


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Many health care practitioners find themselves overwhelmed and depressed, yet there are few outlets for them to get help. A program at UNC-Chapel Hill is targeting doctors who are burnt out.

By Whitney L.J. Howell

Kara McGee knew something was wrong when she felt all the excitement over her job and empathy for her patients draining away.

“I wasn’t missing things, but it was definitely a more ‘here we go again’ attitude,” she said. “I didn’t want it to happen, but I was disconnecting from what I was doing. It felt like it was protective, like it was my way of coping with what I was seeing on a daily basis. I felt very out of control.”

Image courtesy martinak15, Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy martinak15, Flickr Creative Commons

At the time, McGee was a physician assistant, working in a pediatric surgery and intensive care unit in Miami. Being surrounded by so many children who were dealing with such intense medical issues made it difficult for her to concentrate on the patients who had good outcomes. Instead, McGee said, she dwelled on those who suffered from long illnesses and died.

So she quit. McGee walked away from patient care for three years. During that time, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in public health, but eventually returned to working with patients after realizing she missed it. It’s different now though. Today she works in HIV medicine at Duke University Medical Center’s Division of Infectious Diseases.

“Now, I can develop long-term relationships with my patients, and that’s extremely rewarding,” McGee said. “In the ICU or emergency department, there’s either a poor outcome or you don’t know what happens because patients go on their merry ways. It’s the relationship building that’s so gratifying.”

Based on existing research, McGee isn’t alone. Medical professionals are more likely than people in other professions to experience burnout. Studies have looked at burnout prevalence among physician assistants and other health care providers. But until now, there’s one group that’s gone without much examination: medical residents, the physicians-in-training.

According to new work conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill though, as many as 75 percent of medical residents experience at least one time period of burnout, and roughly 50 percent identify themselves as burned out at any given time.

“This is an extremely common problem. The academic medicine centers responsible for training our doctors are under extreme pressure these days,” said Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the lead study investigator. “The entire business of academic medicine and the structure of it are built upon a system that no longer works, and no one is entirely sure what to do about it.

“Residents are on the front lines of providing the care, and I think they feel it acutely.”

Treating the malaise

Physician burnout is a national problem that, in some cases, contributes to an even greater concern: physician suicide. According to Pamela Wible, a family physician and physician-suicide expert, approximately 400 doctors take their own lives annually, and many leave behind letters or evidence of their daily mental stresses.

Image courtesy Kevin Dooley, flickr creative commons

Image courtesy Kevin Dooley, flickr creative commons

Meltzer-Brody’s goal is to identify, treat and diffuse those mental stresses and other mental health concerns before residents reach that level of despair.

Increased patient demands, battles with insurance companies, malpractice concerns and medical school debt are known contributing factors to physician burnout. But, according to Meltzer-Brody, who also directs the Perinatal Psychiatry Program in the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, residents face additional, more contemporary challenges. To identify the residents’ stress mix, she conducted an online survey with 310 UNC HealthCare residents.

In May and June of 2014, she collected survey results from residents in various specialties, including surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry. The questions queried about interpersonal situations, fatigue, depression and feelings around patients who died. Meltzer-Brody noted residents likely had additional stress during this time because they were training to use the UNC Healthcare system’s new electronic health record system, Epic.

Through this survey and her ongoing mental health program for physicians, “Taking Care of Our Own,” Meltzer-Brody has put North Carolina at the forefront of combating this phenomenon. This UNC-based, first-of-its-kind initiative is specifically designed to treat physician burnout by providing education, confidential support services, advice and mental and physical health referrals.

Within its first year, from 2012 to 2013, the program grew by 200 percent.

What residents are feeling and facing

North Carolina’s medical residents face a challenge that could make resident risk of burnout more severe, Meltzer-Brody said.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody. Image courtesy UNC Healthcare

“We have a growing population that is very diverse. North Carolina is the fifth largest state taking care of Latinos, many of whom are undocumented and use the emergency room as their first point of care,” she said. “The UNC emergency room is exploding as we try to meet the health needs of this influx of people.”

Rural physicians face this same challenge, often having to provide emergency room and hospital coverage in addition to their clinic duties. A significant cadre of physicians and residents in North Carolina fall into this category. According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 150 to 160 physicians were recruited annually for the past six years to serve the state’s rural populations.

At the same time that there are more patients in waiting rooms, there are fewer residents on call due to a 2003 federal regulation that limited residents to an 80-hour workweek in an effort to create more well-rested residents and increase patient safety.

“The thought was that if residents were more rested, it would decrease medical errors, as well as improve their mental well-being,” Meltzer-Brody said. “Neither has happened. We’re not seeing reduced medical errors, and burnout is at an all-time high.”

Additionally, academic medical centers haven’t increased their resident numbers or hired other personnel, leaving a smaller group of residents responsible for an ever-growing body of work. All these factors contribute to increased daily stress, she said.

Reports from the Physicians’ Foundation revealed that these issues led to 81 percent of doctors finding themselves overextended and half being unlikely to recommend a medical career.

Together, these factors leave little time for team building or mentoring, eroding the sense of community that once existed between residents, attending physicians and other health care personnel, Meltzer-Brody said. Losing that cooperative spirit can fuel a significant burnout feeling.

“What these residents experience isn’t what brought them into being doctors,” she said. “There’s a big disconnect between what’s being emphasized in medical school and what’s happening in actual practice.”

McGee’s advice

Whatever the symptoms, McGee recommended residents or other health care professionals identify someone with whom they can discuss both their physical and mental reactions to work-related stress.

“I think seeking help from employee-assistance groups is an excellent way to cope with the stress you experience as a medical professional,” she said.

In addition, she suggested individuals experiencing burnout take time for self-reflection. If someone’s ability to provide appropriate, compassionate care is compromised, then it’s time to take a break and try something different professionally.

Ultimately, the biggest force behind burnout among medical professionals is the industry’s culture, McGee said, and practitioners need an outlet.

“It’s just like with professional athletes who get injured and play anyway,” she said. “Part of what you do in having to deal with the stress and the patient care is simply putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the culture of medicine that just comes with the territory.”

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