Many years ago, doctors were relied upon to care for the health needs of their local communities. They were trusted fixtures relied upon to diagnose and treat whatever the ailment. They spent time interacting with patients, not paperwork or screens. There was no bureaucratic red tape or a long list of administrative procedures. It was pure medicine.
I think it would be safe to assume that burnout barely existed. These doctors were, in fact, practicing what they spent years studying to do.
No physician is surprised that burnout is getting worse within our profession. While burnout has escalated over the past two years, the pandemic has not been the root cause — a surprise to many except physicians. Stress and fatigue among doctors have been climbing for years. The mounting tide of administrative work has replaced patient care, typing notes have come between face-to-face interaction and the essence of what physicians went into medicine for in the first place has eroded.
As such, we are seeing physicians becoming more disengaged and retiring early, just like I did four years ago at 43 years old. A retired pediatric urologist.
Burned out doctor
Becoming a doctor has been a dream of mine since I was 13 years old. During my adolescence and early adulthood, I was driven to achieve that goal. Even being the first female resident in over 15 years at my six-year urologic surgery residency didn’t dissuade me. Medicine has always been my passion.
Yet, ten years into my clinical surgery practice, I left. I was burned out. I felt I was failing myself and my family. But being a doctor had been part of my identity for three decades. What else was I going to do?
At the suggestion of a friend, I re-engaged with IVUmed, a global surgical outreach program that I had volunteered with earlier in my medical career in Ghana. I eagerly volunteered for a pediatric urology teaching workshop in Mbale, Uganda.
Working with IVUmed, I learned that in places like Uganda, there were only 10-20 practicing general urologists and no pediatric urologists for over 30 million people. Parents came to us with their babies in their hands, having lost nearly all hope that their child’s condition could be managed. We successfully treated their children and taught local doctors how to continue providing quality urologic care to their own patients.
On one of my trips to Uganda, we treated a young male infant with a condition called Posterior Urethral Valves (PUV). If left untreated, this condition would have progressed to renal failure and, in most low surgical resource areas, death, as kidney dialysis and kidney transplantation are unavailable treatment options. PUV is a commonly treated condition in the U.S. However, the specialized scope used is expensive and out of reach for many of these low-resource health care providers. Fortunately, we were able to have a scope donated to this site, and we were able to teach local physicians how to use it. With the generous support of our volunteers and partners, this child and others like him will thrive.
Today, health care administrators are taking notice of physician burnout, the economic fallout too much to ignore. As a solution, physicians are being presented with a broad array of services from counseling, adjusted schedules, scribes, and more.
These are reasonable efforts, but none quite address the root of the problem — a loss of meaningful life work. Medicine is a vocation. Making a difference in people’s lives helps push physicians through the rigors and competitiveness of medical school, residency training and ultimately, their careers.
One initiative that more administrators should support is global medical outreach. The ability to practice pure medicine, like the neighborhood doctor from long ago, renews a love for the vocation that physicians sought when they first entered medical school. Humanitarian outreach will help reinvigorate physician workforces immediately, allowing physicians to have the opportunity to treat patients who are overwhelmingly grateful for the care provided while also teaching local partner doctors dedicated to changing the lives of adults and children in their own community. Meaning in medicine can be found again. I know, it happened to me.
Danielle Sweeney is a pediatric urologist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com