The baggage of burnt out doctors



You’ve probably heard that we remember negative things we’re told ten times longer than positive things. What’s the implication for those of us in the medical field?

Does all that negativity create more burned out doctors?

If you’re at all like me, those negative things started in your training. Did you feel tortured during grand rounds or oral board exams? Yeah. Me, too.

And how about in the office? One of my mentors would say (as he was going to see post-op patients),“Time to go take my flogging.”

I used to laugh when he’d say that. But here’s what he really meant.

He was steeling himself from the comments by patients who had unrealistic expectations.

I know this because I, too, hear those comments:

“Is this bruising ever going to go away?” (Asked 3 days after a major surgery.)

“How long will it take for the medicine to work?” (24 hours after starting on a strong antibiotic.)

“Am I always going to be this swollen?” (Asked the night after having a procedure.)

Even though I’ve learned to try to laugh my way through these comments and repeat my husband’s classic line: “You’ve got to break a few eggs before you can make an omelet,” some days it’s easier than others.

We go home after a long day of seeing patients in the office or doing surgery in the operating room, and we carry our patients and their concerns with us.

They are sometimes like cherished luggage that we would always hand carry. And other times they feel like albatrosses around our necks.

Unlike some jobs, in the medical world, we bring our patients and their problems home with us.

When we know they are doing well, we feel a gentle ache when the complaints seem unwarranted.

When we know they have been through a lot, we want to call them every few days but don’t want to freak them out, just to let them know that they will get better, even though it may take awhile.

What I’ve learned is that patients don’t really mean to weigh us down.

They just have no idea what to expect, no matter how carefully we prepare them.

So when you see them and you get that barrage of questions that seem off the charts, remember:

It’s up to us to let our patients know how they’re doing.

Whether they are proceeding ahead of schedule in their healing and are lightweight “carry on” luggage when we carry them home.

Or if they are taking longer than usual to heal for whatever reason (smoking, diabetes, stress) but we can see progress and know they will make it to the finish line (and they continue to be part of our daily “luggage” that we carry with us, like a backpack that can’t be emptied until their healing is complete).

Our commitment to ourselves must be to remind ourselves, every day, to lighten our load.

To take time to unpack that luggage. And regroup for the next trip. To the office, to the OR or (hopefully) to the beach.

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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