What can be done to improve our level of physician happiness?

There’s a lot of talk these days about patient satisfaction. Physicians are being measured in so many different ways. What concerns me is there’s not much talk about physician happiness. With levels of physician burnout and discontent growing, why not pull back the curtain on how to improve physician happiness?

Let’s think back to what life was like in grade school. For those of you who have children, what is the one question that strangers ask your child every week?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We may not remember being asked that as a child. And if we do, we likely answered something adventurous like “trapeze artist” or “fireman,” not really knowing what the job description involved.

Did you ever look at how you wanted to feel in your chosen profession?

Yeah. Me neither.

Now that we’re in the trenches, what can we do to dial in some physician happiness?

Back in school as our studies continued, we narrowed down our job choices. The courses that we enjoyed or that came easily to us or that had the best teachers became our favorite subjects. Our high school guidance counselor talked to us about our strengths and weaknesses.

We continued our search as our college choices were made. We took one fork in the road. Then another. Then another.

And then we applied to med school. We were accepted. (Hurray!) We plowed through that next hurdle and completed med school. Then we went on to the next steps of internship, residency, maybe fellowship.

Finally, we landed our First Job. We became Real Doctors and all that it encompassed.

And, if you’re at all like me, the idea of physician happiness never came up.

In fact, that’s when most of us stopped moving forward in search of “what we wanted to do when we grew up.”

Our new goals were about taking care of patients, taking care of our practice, taking care of our families.

And we forgot to add “taking care of ourselves.”

We forgot to make sure we achieved a degree of physician happiness along with our medical degree.

We ended up, at the end of the day, with over 100 charts on our desk to complete. Patient calls to return. Insurance forms to sign. Pre-certification requests to finish for people who don’t know medicine like we do.

What can be done to improve our level of physician happiness?

I’d like to invite you to take a moment out of your day for the sake of physician happiness. And that’s going to involve gaining clarity.

It’s time we sat down with ourselves and got very clear on what our ideal day includes.

Do we enjoy patient interaction above all else? Do we love the sense of accomplishment we receive after a successful surgery? Do we relish the chase of finding the perfect treatment plan and the perfect regimen for the diabetic patients who can’t get regulated, despite their best efforts?

That’s the first step in finding clarity.

There’s one thing I’ve learned from becoming a certified life coach: It’s not enough to just think about getting clear.

One has to dream and scheme and really dig into what that life would look like.

Can you write down all the details of your ideal day? Start with when you first wake up. And end with when you go to sleep. Write down where you live, what you have for breakfast, who your friends are.

Think about what is in your closet. Are there piles of soft, well-worn scrubs for the surgeon in you? Is it an array of yoga pants for when you want to find time to lead your patients into alternative forms of well-being? Or are there fancy suits and shoes for the formal side of you, when you help guide your patients or your staff or your colleagues to the next level?

Whatever it may be, you and you alone know the answer.

Maybe thinking back to why you decided to become a doctor will help guide you.

Some will say you can’t find your way to physician happiness if you keep on doing the things you’ve always done that haven’t worked.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says, “Finding greater meaning and satisfaction in your work is often not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways.”

You and you alone can reach deep inside to see how you can make just one tiny change this week to move toward improved physician happiness.

Get really clear. And then take baby steps toward your goal.

The only one stopping you is you.

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.

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