When a patient comes to see me for a migraine headache, I know that they will leave feeling 100 percent better. They will finally be rid of that pounding, nauseating pain in their head, and they will be happy. And that makes me happy.
Doctors derive great joy from helping their patients. In addition to a strong sense of accomplishment, the ability to reach out and make another life brighter appeals to the humanity in each of us. The world feels smaller and so much more relatable when you are able to cure the sick, and there is no replacement for that joy.
However, this intense compassion is also, unfortunately, a vulnerability.
A few years ago, I was on the phone with a staffing agency that was looking for last-minute help at a facility where I worked part-time. They needed help over the weekend, and I had planned a trip with my family at the same time. And I told them so.
They said that they wanted me to just give them a number — whatever it would take to have me fill their shifts. I gave them a number, and they told me it was too high — could I work for half of that?
“Please, we’re just asking for some help at getting these shifts covered!”
We are so used to coming to work to be compassionate, to take care of patients, that we can often forget that there is a distinction between the patient care part of the job and the business side of the job.
The general medical complex is so large, and it all feeds on the patient-physician interaction. There are many necessary jobs that are fed by this. There are many good things that the business/administrative side of the general medical complex accomplishes. There is also a great deal of waste.
Regardless, it is important to know that we go to work not just to make patients well, but also to feed a horde of credentialers, businessmen, billers and coders, stockholders, and administrators. These are not bad people, but they are not our patients.
But it is easy for a doctor, who is used to providing compassion for a living, to conflate the two. To think that they have a duty to provide compassion to the medical complex. To think that they owe the hospital their time and their love. To think that they have a responsibility to work more shifts than they’d like, stay longer hours, see patients under worsening conditions, attempt to do more with less.
It doesn’t benefit our patients to work for less, or longer, under worse conditions. In fact, we owe it to our patients to push for less burnout, better hours, and better working conditions so that we deliver excellent care compassionately.
Who would I have been helping by taking those shifts that weekend?
While businesses are entitled to try and make money, I feel less inclined toward generosity when the recipient is a large corporation and their shareholders.
It is wrong to exploit our compassion as a vulnerability — it hurts us, and it hurts the people we have promised to heal.
I told the staffing agency no and took my family on vacation. We had a great time.
Tom Belanger is an emergency physician and CEO, DRPLZ.
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