I quit medicine. I was five months out of residency, and I was leaving medicine. I had dedicated my heart, soul, several years of my life along with weekends, holidays, special events, and my children’s first words to this honorable profession. Medicine was never suppose to “just be” my job. It was suppose to be my calling, and it had betrayed me.
I was finally a full fledged physician, and I had the paycheck, the student loans and essentially no fulfillment. Not only did I leave the office night after night completely frustrated, hopeless and exhausted, I showed up each morning in the same state, if not slightly worse. The personal accomplishment of healing was gone. The enthusiasm of service, gone. The love of human kind, gone.
I was drained, sucked dry and running on empty. I had developed physical symptoms: myalgias, headaches, IBS, palpitations, anxiety. But, honestly, the scariest part, I quit caring. It just became about ending the day, finishing one more chart, seeing one more now so at least it was one less tomorrow. No amount of incentives were going to bring me back or cure me.
Burnout is not the disease, it is the symptom of an underlying pathology. Some blame health care’s system-wide issues: work hours, changing bureaucracy of medicine, overburdenment of clerical work with increased patient care demands, overall increased scrutiny, high acuity of patient care, etc. Others blame the inherit stressful nature of medicine. No matter what the underlying diagnosis is, there is a sweeping plague of premature career deaths of good physicians and other health care providers.
Meager attempts have been made to “reduce dissatisfaction” or provide “a stress reduction approach.” Again, reducing stress is treating the symptom like lowering hypertensive emergency to a less critical level. Lower stress takes a situation from terrible to just bad, from critical to manageable. But it’s not cured.
Some physicians leave. They amputate themselves from the situation, cutting their losses. By removing the gangrenous foot, the rest of the body is spared. However, there is a net overall effect: Loss to themselves, to their current patients, to any future patients and to the possible contribution of a career well lived for all of humanity.
To stop this exit, money is thrown at physicians like gauze piled on a gaping wound. However, just as gauze will not return blood back into circulation, money will never increase or return fulfillment. Most every physician did not enter into this career for the money. No amount of dollar signs can be placed on the art of healing and human life. Degrading our art to a paycheck feels cheap, like being a prostitute to the health system. So, some, like myself, start running away.
Others see no end, leading to the worse ultimatum and resorting to suicide. A silent phenomenon is rippling across the country, physician suicide rates are climbing. I understand why. During my dark days, an older colleague spoke to me saying, “We would hope to keep you, Dr. Weisman, for the length of your long 30 plus year career.” My thoughts, “30 years of this. How I’m suppose to suffer through?” For a brief moment, death seemed like the only way out.
So what do we do? How do we change? What should be the treatment plan?
I did what any good physician would do and started searching, hunting, seeking answers because, at my core, I knew it wasn’t over. I never have nor never will be a quitter. I’ve always tend to hang more on the “gunner” side. I found (or stumbled upon) others who like me where searching. I found help through professional coaching.
I refocused. (I am more than a moneymaker on the assembly line of medicine.)
I redefined. (I am not the drug dealer providing supply in exchange for good Press Ganey scores.)
I clarified. (I am and always will be a healer with a servant’s heart and compassionate hands.)
Life’s not perfect now, but it’s a long, long way from what it was. I had quit medicine in my heart, but love doesn’t pay the bills. So by the grace of God, working with a professional coach and intentionally changing my practice, I’m still practicing but differently now. No, I haven’t returned to a bubbleheaded first-year med student punch drunk on medical beneficence. But I’m better.
I feel that coaching could be one tool to help others physicians and healthcare professionals deal with the ever-mounting external factors of the medical profession and the personal internal struggles as well. Coaching alone is not going to cure the system of healthcare of all burnout or dissatisfaction, but it may have a role in improving quality-of-life, lessening burnout, aid in overall safety and provide a platform for change.
If you or a colleague are experiencing something similar, I encourage you to seek out help. My help was in the form of coaching and for that, I am eternally grateful. Because of this burned out experience, I have shifted my focus to help us, the healers. Who better to coach physicians than a fellow physician, right?
Burnout does not have to define you. Your life, your purpose, your calling matters. You are not alone.
Errin Weisman is a family physician and founder, Truth Prescriptions.