Perfection fuels physician burnout


Whenever I talk with groups of medical professionals about job frustration and burnout, there’s a theme that shows up that’s hard to ignore. I call it “the pain of perfection.”

Most of us pursued careers in medicine to help others. And if we’re honest, we must admit that we have type A tendencies infused in our bloodstream.

Can I see a show of hands, please?

That part of us, the one that strives for perfection in every endeavor, is what makes us excellent surgeons, pathologists, family practice doctors, or radiologists.

We constantly strive for perfection; it sets us apart from the rest of the world, the type Bs.

Some days, after I’ve burned the meatloaf, spilled red wine on the white tablecloth, or dictated the wrong operative report on the right patient, I long for a giant bear hug of a dose of type B.

I wonder to myself how it would feel to say, “Yeah, that’s plenty good enough,” and truly be content with the result.

Fortunately, my patient husband has a secret stash of type B hidden away that pops up when I least expect it.

Like the time I miscalculated the time zone conversion from West Coast to East Coast and we missed an important phone call. Or the morning I sat down for breakfast and was greeted by a lovely anniversary card on top of my cereal bowl, front and center.

Oops. The search for perfection is a futile pursuit.

Does the pain of perfection show up in your practice? If you are at all like me, you feel it almost weekly.

It’s the little things that throw us off:

  • A “B-plus” surgical outcome on a traumatic injury that could’ve easily been a “D-minus,” yet, you can’t shake that longing for an “A.”
  • The upset patient who complains because you’re running 20 minutes behind, right after the one who gave you a glowing report for the way you explained a difficult diagnosis.
  • The family member who whines about not getting enough time with you, right after you schedule some quality “me time” that has been sorely missing in your life.

I want you to hear this, loud and clear: Perfection is the enemy of excellence.

Doctors are human. There, I said it.

We must humble ourselves and remember that we are, in fact, not perfect. We must acknowledge that — regardless of our specific beliefs — there is a higher power, a higher authority that is not you.

There is something you can turn to that is bigger than you.

And, whatever that something is for you, let it be. Breathe it in. Believe.

We may not be perfect, but we are enough.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and her upcoming book, Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, will be available this summer. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.


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