The unhealthy behaviors of physicians

As a fourth-year medical student, it was fairly easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. When you have much leisure time and are relatively stress free, you can eat healthy, stay physically active and maintain quality mental health. However, as I begin the journey called residency, it is clear that the task of maintaining my own health will be much more difficult.

But the importance of this task should not be overlooked. As health care providers, we are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the health of our patient, yet we often cannot even ensure our own health.

Although many physicians eat healthier and exercise more than the general American public, nearly 15% of physicians are still obese. Moreover, physicians have higher rates of alcohol and prescription drug abuse than the general public.

The unhealthy behaviors of physicians affect the health care system in many ways. The first is that in our role as patients in the health care system and our healthy lifestyle behaviors contribute to health care costs. Some health scholars have noted that health behaviors are the greatest contributor to health care costs.

More importantly, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors impact our patients. On a basic level, poor physician health affects how well we feel we can care for our patients. Furthermore, physicians cannot serve as a credible source of advice on healthy lifestyle behaviors if they do not practice what they preach. Patients are more likely to follow recommendations if the physician role models good behavior. Similarly, physicians with healthy behaviors are more likely to counsel about lifestyle behaviors.

Practicing unhealthy lifestyle behaviors may also limit our ability to sympathize with patients. We often make strict diet or exercise recommendations to our patients and wonder why they don’t follow our advice. Perhaps by imposing these strict regimens upon ourselves we can better understand that behavior change is not easy.

Personally, I know that if I had to follow the carbohydrate-restricted diet that we recommend to our diabetic patients, I would struggle mightily. Even now, I certainly do not meet adult physical activity recommendations.

But as I start my residency, I am going to do my best to develop and maintain healthy habits — not only for myself but also for my patients. I want to be the best physician I can be. As I reflect and prepare for the start of my internship, it seems clearer than ever that part of that means ensuring that I maintain my physical, emotional and mental health.

I hope I don’t lose sight of this after my first call day.

Elaine Khoong is an internal medicine resident. This article originally appeared in The American Resident Project.

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  • guest

    It is even worse in practice. I am hoping to retire early before I permanently destroy my mental and physical health. This system of medical education as well as practice of medicine is not designed to optimize health of patients as well as providers but to maximize profits. My recommendation is to go with a part time job if you can find it or work abroad. Otherwise you will be seen as lazy, unproductive doctor and will likely not have your initial contract renewed. Locum jobs may be a solution as well.

  • Steven Reznick

    Wear a pedometer and you will be surprised how much exercise you get in day to day living. Make a plan to supplement it when you can and possibly by working it into your family routine. Be true to your dietary choices for health but don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t close to perfect. Residency is stressful. Healthy living reduces your stress. Do the best you can . If you avoid tobacco and drugs and eat in moderation as well as drink alcohol in moderation you will be fine. Plan for the future to practice in a delivery model such as direct pay or concierge where you set your own schedule so that you can schedule in time for you to care for yourself

  • Patient Kit

    Just like when you’re on a jet in crisis, secure your own oxygen mask first so that you’re conscious and ok to help others around you. It sounds like that’s easier said than done for docs, including residents, but it should be a priority that benefits all of us.

  • Suzi Q 38

    I admit that I appreciated any advice a physician would give me regarding my health, and more specifically, my weight.
    In doing so, the doctor should do the same.

    It is easier to dispense such good advice when you look in the mirror, get on the scale, and make sure you are as healthy as you can be first.

    Leading by example sometimes works.

  • logicaldoc

    People can say what they want; but until they go through the realities of Residency and Medicine, being on Call, etc., they have no clue what toll this takes on your physical, spiritual, mental health. You are likely doomed my friend, like most of us looking back after 20+ years and wondering how hypocritical the profession is when all it does is teach you how to help others by ignoring yourself.