I saved a baby’s life today.
I say that not to impress anyone or to make myself out to be some kind of deity but because it is simply true.
A three-week-old baby arrived at my office, gray and limp, with agonal respirations and oxygen saturation of 67 percent. My team of dedicated office staff worked with me rapidly and seamlessly, providing oxygen, bag-mask ventilation, and emergency medical services (EMS) activation. Together, we saved this baby’s life.
To be honest, I’ve been feeling burned out lately. I’m in good company. Nearly 50 percent of pediatricians reported at least one symptom of burnout over the past year. Like most of my colleagues, I chose medicine because I love caring for patients. I am happy when I am in the room with a snarky teenager, a toothless smiling 6-month-old, and a “Paw Patrol”-adorned preschooler.
Time melts away as I examine, reassure, guide, support and encourage these small people and their families. After the adrenaline rush of resuscitating that tiny baby receded, I was left feeling not only grateful for my staff and for EMS and the good outcome we secured for this baby but also oddly rejuvenated, invigorated, the opposite of burned out. Providing competent, unadulterated patient care will have that effect on a doctor.
Yet those moments have become a small fraction of what I do in my office. Research has shown that spending 20 percent of the time doing something you are passionate about is protective against burnout. But I struggle to find that 20 percent. What am I doing with my time? Shouldn’t direct patient care be the lion’s share of what I do? Isn’t that what I went to medical school for?
Instead, I enter data into an electronic medical record (EMR) that many days seems to work against me rather than for me. I bemoan not taking a typing class in high school rather than that extra advanced science class. I manage an ever-expanding message pool composed of clerical tasks such as prior authorizations, medication denials, and insurance companies telling me that I have not selected the drug they prefer for the diagnosis I have coded. (I search in vain for the MD after their names, for surely, they have one, to second guess my medical decision-making.) I battle staffing shortages and patients seeking care at walk-ins poorly equipped to care for children. I feel for these parents. They frequently can’t get their children in to see me. I’m too busy fighting with insurance companies and typing furiously into the EMR.
This is a call to action. Doctors are not data entry clerks. We are not an assembly line, shift-working, clock-watching individuals. We are highly trained professionals who sacrificed our 20s, an entire decade of our youth, spending enormous amounts of time sleeping (or not sleeping) in hospitals, barely eating, missing sunlight for days at a time, while our friends in other careers accelerated past us, achieving the milestones of career satisfaction, marriage and family and somehow managing to find time for self-care as well.
We doctors don’t begrudge this situation, though. We aren’t complaining. We know that this is what we signed up for. And, most days, we are happy with our choice. Especially when we are doing what we love, we all wish we got to do more and less of the other stuff.
So please, don’t make us spend our days getting prior authorizations for inhaled corticosteroids and stimulants and whatever medication a patient’s insurance company doesn’t want us to prescribe.
Don’t require us to type ever-lengthening number combinations into an EMR field every time we prescribe a controlled substance.
Don’t reimburse us so little for our care that we are forced to see an ever-increasing number of patients per day, leaving us physically and emotionally exhausted.
Don’t overburden our nurses and support staff with so much work that they leave health care for better-paying and less stressful jobs.
And please, don’t ask us to face a computer instead of facing our patients and really seeing and listening to them. We are doctors. Sometimes, even those who work in the outpatient setting need to get busy saving a life.
Let’s do everything we can to ensure we are refreshed and ready when that time comes.
Susan Walker is a pediatrician.
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