Fight burnout: Practice medicine with purpose

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I remember climbing into my mother’s office chair and pretending to be the doctor. I was six years old then, wearing her oversized white coat with its sleeves hanging over my small hands. She was a practicing physician in a time period that no longer exists — communist Armenia. This was a time when physicians made about the same salary as factory workers — a time when university education and health care were free of charge. Nevertheless, I never once heard my mother complain about how little money she made or how difficult her job was. This was the time of house calls when after a busy morning of seeing patients in the office, she would take two buses to go see her patients in their homes, often walking several blocks in the scorching summer heat. Instead, she often shared stories of triumph, healing, inspiration, and love for her patients and colleagues. Her stores were what inspired me years later, to pursue medicine myself.

Fast forward to 2018, when I am practicing medicine here in the United States, in the most affluent country there ever was in the world. Yet, there is not a week that goes by when I don’t hear stories of lament about cut wages and reimbursements, challenging patients and toxic work environments. Yes, physicians today do not make nearly as much as we did 30 or 50 years ago. However, I often feel that there is so much negativity surrounding our profession that it takes away from the sacred calling we were destined to. Where have we gone wrong? Why are our physicians burning out? Why is physician suicide at an all-time high in decades and job satisfaction so low? Why are so many physicians looking for alternative “side gigs” or leaving medicine all-together?

I am not sure that there are easy answers to these questions. In 2018, we are overworked, drained and tired of the grind. Where do we begin? How do we begin?

I think the answer lies in each and every one of us rediscovering our passion and what makes us happy and fulfilled. Each of us is so infinitely unique and the answer is different for each and every one of us. To begin to answer these questions, we must first take ownership of our careers and lives and uniquely craft them to fulfill us, instead of waiting for our employers to pull us in whatever direction they may want to. We must slow down, listen to our hearts and learn what life-work balance looks like for each of us.

What does this look like in reality? We are the creator of our own destiny, we often hear people say. We often forget that we are the creator of each of our days and moments. Obviously, there are many things out of our control; however, we can certainly control many things in our daily lives both professionally and personally. What does our day look like? What does our practice look like? What fulfills us? Is it patient care? Is it research? Is it teaching? Is it mentorship? Is it leadership or administration? Is it academic medicine or private practice? Is it perhaps a combination of some of these disciplines? The answer is unique for each of us, but the answer is there. If we search deep enough and long enough, we might just get to a place where we are fulfilled and happy with our jobs, where it is a joy to wake up and go to work every day. This is when we can truly give of ourselves to our patients, our colleagues, our staff, our families and everyone who comes in contact with us. It starts with us.

In 2016, I realized that I can no longer just practice medicine. I discovered my passion for leadership and teaching. I wanted to be part of the decision-making process as a physician and corroborate with our operational counterparts to protect us, the physicians. I knew I needed additional training in business, so I started in an MBA program, to equip myself with the knowledge and expertise to work in that direction. It was fulfilling to learn about business, finance, and management and to contribute to the organization I worked for. My work had meaning. I was learning and growing into my passion and one day could make decisions that could positively affect my colleagues, patients and myself. I was working and striving for something bigger than myself and my job.

Often, we look at physician burnout and try to find the answer outside ourselves — in the organization that we work for or the career we have chosen. Only if my employer did more of this and less of that? Only if my colleagues were more like this and less like that. Only if I didn’t have those challenging patients. Only if I got paid more and worked fewer hours. Only if I had more PTO (paid time off). Only had I chosen a different specialty. There goes the journey into the infinite rabbit hole where there are no real answers and no real solutions.

Instead, perhaps if we begin with ourselves each and every day, we may get closer to some answers and solutions. What fuels my soul? What gives me joy? What inspires me to wake up and go to work? What fills my heart to the brim that the joy overflows to those around me? What activities recharge my batteries? Which relationships feed my spirit? What drains me so I do less of that? What was I born to do? How am I meant to spend each and every moment of each and every day? Which direction am I destined to grow in? These are the kind of questions that can propel us in the right direction, fuel our passions and give meaning to our work and days. These are the questions, when answered well, can fight off physician burnout and sense of meaningless days that turn into meaningless years of toil that suck the very essence of who we are as individuals.

These are the questions that can mark our unique legacies. This is what can light our fire and let our light shine to light the way of others. Let’s start today. Let’s start with ourselves. Let’s ask ourselves these questions and more importantly, let’s ask each other these questions. Let’s not spend another day toiling without purpose in the labyrinths of medicine, because our work matters; our patients matter and we matter. Let’s stop complaining about our work and our wages and our schedules. Let’s start making small changes each and every day that move us one step closer to what we dream one day our career and work will look like. Let’s start with ourselves and let’s start with today.

Kristine Tatosyan-Jones is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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