Patients should care about physician stress and burnout

Patients should care about physician stress and burnoutPhysicians are human, like everyone else.

And when things go wrong, like making a medical error or having a patient die, they suffer like most people would.

Pauline Chen writes about Schwartz Rounds in the New York Times, where, in a confidential environment, doctors and other health professionals can discuss challenging cases.

As Dr. Chen writes, “the discussions that ensue are often emotional. But instead of focusing on blame, discussion leaders work to transform these stressful moments into an opportunity for clinicians from all disciplines to encourage and support one another.”

I applaud institutions that have these rounds, as it both acknowledges and supports the stress physicians face while practicing medicine.

Not all patients, however, are sympathetic to the idea. Some are downright hostile. Consider some of the ensuing comments:

I wouldn’t be sobbing if I received your paycheck. Almost every physician I have encountered thinks they are God and when they realize that they are not- like your friend realized- they quickly become exasperated and despondent. Why not a course in humility and a pay cut to make healthcare affordable and physicians less arrogant.

Or this:

Let them sit and talk with each other about how stressed they all are on their lunch hours. Do not add this cost (what cost? doctors hourly rates? room rent in one’s own edifice? a coffee machine?) to patient billings.

I understand there will always be a subset of the population who will “doctor bash” no matter what the issue or argument is. Or say that physician salaries should make doctors immune to emotional stress.

Some, in fact, may not even care about doctors burning out.

Well, they should.

Studies have shown that doctors who are stressed and burnt out make more medical errors, both in surgery and internal medicine. And that doctors who make a mistake, or are sued, are more prone to suicide and depression.

Whether patients like it or not, the impact of physician stress affects them.

Doctors and health professionals deserve emotional support while practicing medicine. I applaud the Dr. Chen and the New York Times for publicizing Schwartz Rounds.

If you aren’t sympathetic to the mental welfare of doctors, ask yourself this.  When you’re sick in the hospital, would you want a physician who’s emotionally broken?

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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  • Chrysalis Angel

    Anyone that can make a blanket statement about every physician being arrogant, hasn’t had the physicians I have known.  There are bad apples in every bunch, every walk of life.

    Let these people put in 12 and 20 hr. days, without time for meals, bathroom breaks, or time with their own families.  Let them spend a day with a physician who is putting his own needs to the back burner, in order to do a good job for his patients.   Let them feel the weight of the responsibility that is shouldered by those that make life and death decisions.

    We need to care about these doctors’ well being.  They need a safe place to get support, and help with their own health care issues- whether it’s physical or mental.  Colleagues need to be able to step in and aid an ailing and struggling physician, without worrying about harming the physician’s professional and personal reputation as he/she gets help.  This is a big issue, many are suffering and trying to cope on their own. 

  • Winnie

    Physicians are human like everyone else – I couldn’t agree
    more.  And, so are nurses, pharmacists, and
    everyone involved in patient care.   I was
    somewhat saddened, though, to read this piece. 
    I am a patient who suffered a near fatal adverse event 10 years ago.  Because of that life altering circumstance, and
    the lack of support available at the time, I founded an organization (MITSS) dedicated
    to emotionally supporting patients, families, AND clinicians.  I saw firsthand the lack of emotional support
    for EVERYONE involved in medical errors and adverse events and felt compelled
    to change the system that had failed me and the physician involved in my care.

    Over the past ten years, I have spoken with countless patients
    and families who have been involved in errors and unexpected outcomes.  Of course, every situation is unique, and it
    is impossible to generalize, but many are very aware of the emotional toll experienced
    by their caregivers.   In fact, I have spoken with patients who are quite
    concerned about the professional repercussions that may result for their
    caregivers.  They know that if they are
    suffering, the clinicians involved must be, too.  That is certainly the way that I felt.  Others, unfortunately, never get a chance to
    see the vulnerability of their clinicians.

    Disclosure and apology policies are now becoming the norm.  Along with that must come a recognition of
    the emotional nature of these incidents.  
    These discussions are difficult, and anger is a natural part of the process
    (especially early on).  We must move away
    from an “us against them” mentality and promote healing for everyone.  Education, training, and open and honest
    dialogue can help us to see each other as human beings.


    Linda K. Kenney
    President/Executive Director
    Medically Induced Trauma Support Svcs. (MITSS)

  • sdgerhardt

    I see many references to physicians but none about nurses.  Since physicians visit patients once or twice per day in the hospital and nurse are in fairly constant attendance…..I’m not sure why nurses aren’t mentioned in the article.  After all, it is nursing who does the day to day care of patients and their families.

  • Joe Kosterich

    Working in any caring profession is stressful as the demands are great and the expectations often unrealistic

  • Natalie A. Sera

    I understand burnout. I was a teacher for 23 years. Teacher burnout is common, as it must be among other public service workers who are asked to do too much with too little time and materials. I understand long workweeks, and I understand horrible emotions, like when one of your students commits suicide. But I still would have liked to have made more than 20% of what a physician makes, when I had a master’s degree, and 23 years of experience.

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