Medicine is a difficult calling. You already know the sacrifices. As an undergraduate, you gave up time with friends and family so you could be accepted into medical school — where you worked even harder.
You understand that the practice of medicine requires you to take responsibility for the care of others … and the emotional toll that comes with it.
In this profession, it’s easy to feel like you’re alone. Our medical training creates a sense of competition; we compete with each other for class rank, residency slots, and coveted fellowships. But in this high-stress age of medicine, we are also each other’s greatest source of support.
I have been around medicine my whole life. And during my lifetime, I have seen physicians retreat from one another.
As the daughter of a family-practice physician, I spent countless happy hours at clinics and hospitals. When I came to visit, physicians would stop what they were doing to show me magic tricks or give me stickers. The doctor’s “lounge” was a busy place, and physicians would stop there prior to rounds to ask about one another’s families or hobbies.
I don’t intend to over-romanticize the medicine of yesteryear.
It wasn’t perfect. The difference is, no matter what problems faced the medical community, there was a stronger sense of “us” as a physician body.
Somewhere along the way, tucked among electronic medical records, increasing documentation and metric requirements, and the transition from independent practice to employment — we became so overwhelmed that we had to streamline our days in order to finish the work.
We skip the doctor’s lounge because we need that time to write our notes. We inhale lunches at our desks while still working (if we eat at all).
Medical associations’ and medical-staff meetings’ attendance continue to decrease. We cut out the one thing we needed the most—the support of our colleagues.
There was a point in my life when I didn’t understand this well. Years ago, while on call as the resident in the CCU, I received an early-morning phone call that my cancer-stricken grandmother was moving to hospice. I stepped into the hallway to collect myself, but one of my fellow residents noticed I was upset. She suggested I call in jeopardy to cover my shift, but I told her I just needed a minute. When I returned to the unit, I was stunned to find that jeopardy had been called on my behalf and that I was free to go. My grandmother, who lived halfway across the country, passed within hours of my arrival. I got to say goodbye to my grandmother because my colleague recognized my need and took the opportunity to support me.
Since that time, I have had several different physician roles and felt the desire to just push through to get my work done. I could justify not calling that consultant because they can just read my note. Nobody would think twice if I disappeared to a far off computer to do my notes so I could avoid distracting conversations with my fellow physicians. But if I do those things, then I’ve cut myself off from the people I need. In fact, the latest Medscape survey data indicates I am not alone, and the number one answer to “How do physicians deal with burnout” is “isolate self from others” with a response rate of 45 percent. Physicians with thoughts of suicide will tell a friend or colleague 21-27 percent of the time (depending on generation) but no one 37-41 percent of the time.
In medicine, you will lose patients and spend hours obsessing over what you could have done differently. In life, there will be births, deaths, divorces, addiction, depression, or other stressors that will make your work life more difficult. In those moments, be the kind of doctor who makes the call for your colleague and helps them out. In those moments, be the kind of doctor who accepts that help. Spend time with your colleagues because the bonds you make with those you work within this shared calling can make all the difference.
Clarissa Barnes is an internal medicine physician.
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