What is it about doctors that makes them think they don’t need help?



It was a Friday morning, in the wee hours. I had come in to the hospital early to get caught up on the ever-present computer work. As I got a quick cup of tea, a young surgeon I’d seen around the operating room came in. He’d clearly been up most of the night.

We exchanged a few pleasantries. And then he cut to the chase: “Don’t you help docs with burnout?”

Surprised that he would initiate the conversation in the lounge, I pulled up a chair. “Sure,” I replied. “What’s going on today?”

He proceeded to unload about his “full moon” night on call, the tough surgery he performed yesterday, the frustrating staff, his new baby at home. My role was to supply a silent nod of understanding, of permission to vent, a soft shoulder to land on.

He finally came up for air, ending on a question: “Now, what do I do?”

I turned off my computer and settled in to give this young fellow my full attention. I was grateful for the early hour, knowing we likely wouldn’t get interrupted for a bit.

Over the next several minutes, we walked through his typical week. I could hear the frustration, the sadness, and the surprise he felt at not knowing what to do next.

We broke it down into things that could be changed. And things that couldn’t.

First, I made some concrete suggestions:

  • Leave work early one day a week.
  • Regain control over things you can control (For example, ride his bike into work when the weather was nice instead of driving; or, bring in lunch from home rather than accept what the hospital cafeteria had to offer).
  • Schedule and take that week off that has been on the horizon. Do something with friends or family that fills that empty cup (e.g., golfing; fishing; reading anything but medical journals).

By the end of our conversation, he thanked me. But I really feel I may have learned more than he did in our talk.

I learned that people — especially those in the medical field — don’t want to show fear or uncertainty. They don’t like to ask for help. They wait until they are almost broken before they raise their hand for a lift.

I learned that to change our medical world we must be open and receptive to talking about the hard stuff with everyone. When we let our hair down and admit that we have crappy days, it makes it OK to share concerns that pop up.

I learned that burnout and frustration can happen at any stage of our lives. It’s not limited to the folks like me who have been trudging away for 20 years. It can even happen to medical students who are freaking out and overwhelmed.

I learned that, regardless of whether you are a radiologist, pathologist, internist, emergency physician, nurse, technician, or ward clerk, you possess an overriding love of what you do to help others. We all do.

Unfortunately, that love can be tested when we are pushed to the heartbreak point in our busy lives.

What can you learn from all this?

It’s OK to not be great. To question your path. To be a little lost.

When burnout sets in, it’s imperative to stop and reach out to family, friends, or colleagues.

There is nothing, nothing “less than” about reaching out and surrendering to the notion that we don’t know it all.

It’s the folks who don’t reach out who are wrong. The ones who think, “I don’t need anybody. I can just suck it up a little longer and things will get better.”

Not to scare you, but more than 300 physicians commit suicide in the U.S. every year.

And the suicide rate for female physicians is four times that of other female professionals.

What is it about the medical profession that makes us think we don’t need help?

Is it because we’re so busy helping others that we lose our perspective?

We need to surround ourselves with the people who know us best and who can see the good side of us, even when we can’t.

Think about the business people you know: your neighbors, friends you went to school with, your siblings. Think about the ones who work for Fortune 500 companies, or who are engineers or attorneys.

Guess what happens when they are promoted into leadership roles, like the ones we all have?

They’re assigned business coaches at the office. They get mentors to show them the ropes and gently guide them. And they have support available to answer their questions.

In our world, we’re expected to have all the answers.

And that, my friends, gets exhausting.

Instead, why not try to embrace your vulnerability and ask questions when you’re in trouble?

This one action could change everything.

And nothing bad will happen. I promise.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and is the author of Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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