Burnout and visceral discontent are rapidly becoming the most pressing crises for modern health care professionals. The reported rates of burnout and work dissatisfaction exceed 50 percent in practically every specialty of medicine, regardless of the stage of training or career. The impact of COVID on health care professionals, and physicians in particular, is beginning to become clear. The U.S. alone lost over 100,000 physicians to retirement or other careers in 2021 alone. This is almost equal to the entire physician workforce in Canada.
A large majority of physicians, if not all, want to provide excellent, even exceptional, care to their patients. Being a physician is a calling for many, and it’s certainly a privilege to help a person in need through a high level of expertise and contribute to their well-being. Medical professionals embark on complex and arduous training that often exceeds a decade and includes a high workload and a stressful work environment. The majority of physicians graduate with six-figure student loan debts.
But beyond direct patient care and associated challenges, success in medicine is often measured primarily by clinical or research and academic productivity. The culture of medicine in many places still promotes hierarchy, long work hours, workaholism, 24/7 connectivity, and extreme performance pressure at all times, regardless of personal and family circumstances. Furthermore, challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion make it even more challenging. The measures of success are typically intangible and unclear, leading to constant pressure to achieve more. Despite hard and smart work, many professionals feel lost and are unclear about what success truly means to them. Many physicians and health care professionals feel stuck or isolated, as if they are in a lone wolf culture, further augmenting their personal and professional challenges.
It is now abundantly clear that many physicians have been and are seeking alternative careers or sources of income to supplement or replace their medical incomes. There are ample websites, social media groups, and platforms that demonstrate how to accelerate an exit from medicine.
Wellness and well-being are truly at the forefront of challenges in medicine and for the medical workforce. A healthy workforce is a necessity to fulfill the needs of an ever-increasing complexity of health care and patient needs. Financial awareness is a key aspect too, with much work needed in this area. A massive exodus of physicians could truly jeopardize our health care system even further.
For a fulfilling life and career, pursuing holistic success with purpose and meaning is essential. Medical professionals are no exception to this; if anything, they need to pursue such a journey. The journey matters as much as the destination, if not more. Also, many of our colleagues regularly fall prey to what is known as the arrival fallacy. The arrival fallacy is the illusion that once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will achieve lasting happiness and fulfillment. But this is as good as chasing a mirage.
In the 2023 BIBA® international award-winning self-help book The Legendary Quest, we espoused a methodology that will help anyone achieve a happy and successful life on their own terms and in accordance with their own values. In Soar: A Soul’s Quest, we created what we intended to be a magical and inspirational fable that illustrates the themes of The Legendary Quest, while building on them. Soar is a headstrong eagle who dares to dream that there is more to life than his cozy, familiar homestead. He is an independent thinker who challenges the rigid rules and authority. Soon, there comes a time when our stifled hero must seek the unknown and embark on an epic journey of self-discovery, soul-searching, and more. The story of Soar is broadly applicable to the human experience across the globe, regardless of all demographic and social factors. This story is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or any other identifier. The story is equally applicable for, and to, any preferred pronoun.
Soar is a reminder of the traditional power of the allegorical tale as an instruction on how to deal with life’s most profound challenges. The story also raises issues of contemporary relevance, including how an individual must reconcile personal growth with family expectations and how that growth, when achieved, can return to enrich the culture and community of origin.
Soar is reminiscent of a medical doctor, as I truly believe everyone has a “Soar” in them in some capacity. It is not enough to be comfortable with discomfort. It’s important to act, and act now! Take the steps to identify your core values, seek mentorship and coaching, pursue your hobbies, craft goals, start that side gig that you always dreamt of, take care of your health and well-being, travel to places you wish to, spend evenings with family or friends, and so much more. It’s about weaving a rich experience in accordance with one’s own values and priorities and cultivating success. And this includes medical practice.
It’s not about letting some goal lurking around the horizon fully consume you! It’s about fully and purposefully living in the present moment while pursuing that goal, whatever it may be!
It’s about finding our Why and then purposefully pursuing it in every way. It’s about engagement, learning, connection, and meaning.
It is well recognized that pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, writing, speaking, or any side gig or hobby for that matter may truly add substantially to a physician’s life, far beyond just income. It may pave the way for their personal and professional hero’s journey, in addition to enhancing their medical careers. This will then contribute to ensuring a well, healthy, engaged, and connected medical workforce to serve our patients. Every physician needs to pursue their own hero’s journey for authentic success and happiness in their lives. Every journey matters. It absolutely does.
Ketan Kulkarni is a physician entrepreneur.