In this world of burnout, doctors have to remember why they do this

Recently, I had the privilege of presenting the Clinical Specialty Award for General Surgery at the 2017 Graduate Awards Celebration at Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP-NW). It was amazing to hear all the accomplishments and meet so many wonderful new doctors in this year’s class. I also got the opportunity to meet a few proud parents and professors.

The list of accomplishments of this class was incredible and included community service, community clinics, overseas work, research projects and so much more. The recipient of the General Surgery Award, Vanessa R. Majeski, was no exception. Before she began her medical training, she had already been working to stamp out disease in West Africa and spent time as a research assistant studying colorectal cancer in Prague. Now, she heads off on her next great adventure as a general surgery resident. She represents the future of surgery.

Seeing those students walk across the stage reminded me of what an incredible group of people make the decision to become physicians. The amount of talent, drive and intelligence is incredible.

After an 11 to 16 year journey to become an attending physician, they emerge ready to begin their medical practice and tackle the massive student debt accumulated during their training. There are very few professions that require such a commitment just to get started.

When I talk with doctors a few years after graduation, that spark that was in their eyes as medical students is often gone. How does such an accomplished group of people go from an excited group of students to such a depressed existence as attendings? Society has recently turned our noble profession into a commodity. We cannot sit down and listen to our patient who is hurting and in need of our help because we have a quota to meet. So, we only allow 15 minutes for the visit and charting. We cannot order a needed test for the next patient because it is not in her insurance contract as a covered test. We cannot perform a needed operation on the next patient as that condition falls “under the line” and will not be covered by their policy. We waste more than a third of our day staring at a computer screen and not communicating with the patients we so want to help. Our offices are so full, meeting quotas, that an urgent patient can’t get in to see us and ends up going to the emergency department at the hospital or a nearby urgent care facility instead. We actually work for an employer who has no medical training and doesn’t understand much about medicine beyond the economic bottom line of profit.

How did we lose ourselves in this mess? How did we become a profession known for its high rate of burnout and suicide? Why does one of the perceived least stressful of our specialties, dermatology, still have a 50 percent rate of showing symptoms of burnout?

Go back and read the personal statement on your medical school application. The feelings expressed are likely those of excitement and hope for the future. Back then, we were talking about what a great privilege it would be to help people, and the great responsibility we would have as our patients trust us with their lives. We really do have a noble profession and are entrusted with a great responsibility. Sometimes we just need to look back and remember the “why” that keeps us going. It is hard to continue a difficult job if we do not have a good “why” to keep us motivated.

What was your “why?”

Why did you become a physician? Why do you continue to practice medicine? Why have you not left medicine for another career?

It is the answer to these questions that will make the difference between you going to work happy every day or spending your entire day complaining about your job. If your “why” isn’t strong enough, you will not be able to keep up the pace this very stressful profession requires.

When you have established your “why,” write it down and put it in a prominent place where you will see it several times a day. This will help you keep your frustrations with the EMR in perspective since it is a necessary evil you must endure in order to accomplish your “why.” If the “why” is strong enough, you can do anything.

What you do in your daily practice is not as difficult as what you did during your residency, and you were able to survive that.

I would like to personally thank you all for your continued service in this difficult profession; for the time you spend away from your families to help your patients, for the late night calls and the long days, for the weekends of working when you could have been at the beach and for the years of dedication to pay back the debt you accumulated during your education.

Here’s to all the new graduates as they move into the next phase of their lives. Thank you for your continued dedication to learning and caring. Please keep it up because one day you will be my doctor.

Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett.  He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice Right and The Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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