Address physician well-being as we would any other disease


I lost a friend this month. She was a surgeon; she was one of us.

We lost her.

So did her patients. All the ones she helped. The ones she saved.

So did her hospital, her nurses, her techs.

So did her family. All the love, coming to a screeching halt.

Another friend lost. Another brilliant healer in medicine — gone. Another one I will now refer to as “she was …” when I talk about her. When I tell stories, she will be in the past tense.

She was kind and creative, artistic and intuitive. She was honest and real and authentic.

Once, during a difficult time in my career, I was facing opposition. I was at a crossroads, facing what felt like an insurmountable mountain. She said to me, “What will you choose? Comfort, or authenticity?”

She knew what I would choose. She also knew I needed a friend to say “you can do it.”

She was a doctor, skilled and sharp, who was human. She had struggles and hardships and all the things humans do. She had failures mixed with amazing victories, loss with gain.

She was one of us.

I struggle to think how she felt in the end.

Did she know we loved her? Was there something I missed? A clue, a sign? Could I have been more, done more, said more?

As I stand on stages, and speak on physician well-being, she will now be a number on my slides.

My heart hurts. Why does she now count on the number in my slides?

No. Not her.

I’m angry. Really angry, actually. Why are so many of us dying this way? How can we be so smart, so innovative, and we can’t figure out how to stop this trend? We develop robots to heal, vaccines to prevent, gene therapy to treat highly specific mutations. We place mechanical devices in hearts, take organs from one person and place into another, and grow cells.

But we can’t stop highly educated and amazingly dedicated professionals, to the right and left of us, from dying.

We must.

If you are in any sort of leadership in medicine, I don’t care about your credentials. I don’t care about your degrees or accolades or publications.

I do care about you, and our colleagues as a collective: I urge you to stop for a moment and ask yourself the following:

Do I actively promote a culture of well-being?

Do I lead from the front with compassion for the healers?

Am I actively trying to improve the work of caregivers by fighting for resources to support wellness?

Is well-being represented in our C-suite?

Do I think about how x, y, z changes will affect those asked to implement these changes?

How will we measure well-being after we implement these changes?

How will these changes affect our culture of well-being?

Do you make it feasible and acceptable for physicians to seek help for mental illness?


400 lives lost each year by physicians in practice in the U.S. who decide the world is better off without them.

We are smarter than this.

Our organizations, our administrators, our colleagues…we are smart.

We are in the business of saving lives.

I urge all of us, as we work to change how we care for our patients, to remember to do so in a way that protects the lives of our healers.

Get involved in your organization and fight for well-being. Get involved in your microculture’s well-being. Do all you can, just as you do for your patients, to ensure life.

I don’t have all the answers; I’m struggling to make sense of this, and I consider myself well-read in this arena. I wish I could list specific aims and a protocol for how to address this. Nearly every organization is looking at data on well-being and trying to figure out ways to address it. Physicians are 1.6 times more likely (male) or 2.3 times more likely (female) to commit suicide than similar age and sex-matched individuals in the U.S. There are clear reasons for this, and we must have committed resources to investigate them.

I do know this:

You matter. To me, to your family, to your patients.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, you matter.

We all do. So, let’s take the reins, say enough is enough, and address physician well-being as we would any other disease: with determination, intelligence, and action.

Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.

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