Lack of professional and personal financial literacy is a primary driver of burnout

Physicians are, without a doubt, some of the most educated professionals around. You spend endless hours studying, taking tests, and jumping through academic hoops in the name of good grades and patient care. But is the education you are receiving truly preparing you for the practice of medicine today?

Health care is now considered almost exclusively a business term. And yet there is a lack of business taught in medical school. Learning the language of the health care industry is a crucial skill for the physicians of today and tomorrow.

The elephant in the exam room

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “financial literacy” is the ability to understand the basic principles of business and finance.

This definition seems simple enough. Yet grasping the nuances of the business of medicine is as challenging as learning the intricacies of a rare disease. Despite numerous scholarly articles and professional organizations acknowledging this, while medical schools teach the essentials of “doctoring,” the elephant of financial literacy is still standing in the middle of the room.

This often leaves residents overwhelmed when facing financial decisions post-graduation. It’s like asking an intern to perform a comprehensive visit on a complex patient in 15 minutes on July 1st … not only is it near impossible, it’s just plain cruel. But there is hope: accrediting bodies are now requiring “non-clinical” skills be taught, including those focusing on finances.

Getting some guidance

In response to these stressors, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has incorporated recommendations for educating residents on the business of medicine. The Common Program Requirements, which every residency program must follow, require programs to incorporate basic business topics into training. But is this enough? While learning the basics of health care finance is absolutely vital, many residents are starting behind the proverbial eight ball when it comes to a baseline knowledge of personal finances.

Ignorance is not bliss

As noted above, the majority of residents in training have a startlingly low level of personal financial literacy.

Many residents have been shown to have “low financial literacy and investment-risk tolerance, high debt, and deficits in their financial preparedness.”

So how did we wind up here? According to Christie Ton, DO, an American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) Emerging Leaders Institute Project Winner, there is an unmet educational need for teaching medical students and residents the basics of financial literacy.

While medical schools now recognize the importance of good communication skills paired intelligence in their applicants, the elephant stomping through the room is the profound lack of basic financial education in medical students. Add this to years of being isolated from the “real world” by grueling hours of studying with peers having the same insulating experience, and you’ve created a major driver of the physician burnout.

Getting educated

Just like the first day of medical school, developing a savviness for the ins and outs of finances in medicine, both professional and personal, can seem overwhelming. There are a multitude of new terms, concepts, and acronyms (yes, they’re in this field too) that look like a jumbled mess. However, you already have the tools you need to tackle this. By taking a moment to step back and use your analytical skills, you’ll soon see that this can be mastered. Take these tips you likely already use and apply them to your financial education:

1. Know the lingo. Remember trying to figure out what the heck EC ASA stood for? How about ORIF? Or CABG? All the acronyms and slang were overwhelming. Feeling under-versed can take an already anxiety-provoking subject (money) and make it overwhelming. So, familiarize yourself with the terms used in business, both at home and in the office.

2. Know your resources. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a physician than an encounter that starts with “I Googled my symptoms…” Search engines are powerful tools, however, without defined parameters, they can take a seemingly innocent question and provide results that strike fear into the heart of the most reasonable person. Organizations such as the American Medical Association, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and Harvard Business Review provide reliable, vetted information on finances. You wouldn’t devise a complex treatment plan based on an unreliable source …. why do the same with your finances?

3. Get an insider’s perspective. As noted above, you are likely insulated from the “real world” with peers who are experiencing the same struggles as you are. However, you and your colleagues are not the first medical trainees who have faced this challenge. As the old saying goes, there are no stupid questions, only the ones that go unasked. Ask your peers what they are doing to educate themselves. Look to those who have not only survived but thrived through this storm. Resources such as White Coat Investor and Dr. Piggy Bank are not only informative, they are tangible evidence that physicians can educate themselves on the intricacies of finance.

Why it matters

I was lucky enough to be Dr. Ton’s advisor in her ELI project; we spent quite a bit of time discussing how and why to conduct this project. She very simply and powerfully stated that basic financial literacy is not a requirement to be a competent physician.

But we are shooting ourselves in the foot by missing the proverbial forest through the trees: by hyper-focusing all our attention on science and the details of medicine, we lose sight of the financial sacrifice we’ve made and the impact it has on our financial and emotional health.

Lack of professional and personal financial literacy is a primary driver of burnout, which we all are very well acquainted with.

By taking the time to be informed, ask uncomfortable questions, and broaden our education beyond the traditional art of medicine, you are giving yourself a much-needed booster of professional and personal financial literacy to help prevent the onset of burnout.

Meagan Vermeulen is director of content strategies, Physician Career Planning and associate program director, Rowan University SOM Family Medicine Residency Program.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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