Physicians who work themselves into the ground have nothing to be proud of

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There were recently many news articles and coverage exalting a physician for working 250 straight days during COVID. 250 days, that’s nearly 8 1/2 months without a day off.

While this physician displays dedication and caring, I don’t think we should celebrate this as an achievement. The truth is he’s working every day all day for one of two reasons. Either there is no one else, and he’s a victim of staffing shortages or, if there are other people available to work, he still feels it’s his personal responsibility to continue to be there every single day.

Either way that is not something to applaud. For one, working that many days in a row is dangerous for both physical and mental health. It isn’t sustainable, and in time, he’s going to hit a wall or his breaking point. Alternatively, he’ll get sick with COVID himself and be forced out of work or even die. His family, if he has one, surely has certainly suffered at the hands of his dedication. I’ve known doctors like this, and they always seem to end up divorced and alone. One can only be pulled in so many directions; something has to give.

Doctors aren’t and should never be martyrs, but medicine is notorious for always rewarding and praising those who work more than anyone else. Those who suffer in silence, without complaint. Those who always volunteer to do extra work or take extra shifts. All that does is reinforce a culture of toxic overworking. We can all remember back to when there were no work restrictions for residents, and those who couldn’t work days straight without sleep or nutrition were treated as outcasts and failures. Even those who trained on the cusp of new restrictions recall our senior residents and attendings lamenting how much easier we had it.

With this toxic attitude ingrained in medicine, is it any wonder that more than 60 percent of physicians report significant burnout? I’m sure the actual number is much higher, with the pandemic worsening daily. Even before the pandemic, the number of doctors reporting burnout was between 45 to 50 percent. We’ve all known someone who’s quit their job or career over burnout; heck, I’m one myself.

Working all day every day is not something to praise, no matter the profession. I want to say it’s distinctly American and capitalistic, but the truth is that doctors all over the world are often expected to work 24/7. In more remote places with access to one physician, that doctor is on call day and night for whatever arises. In America, we are lucky in that for many doctors, we have moved away from that schedule and lifestyle. We increasingly have set schedules and only take call on occasion. My profession is a perfect example: Hospitalists were invented some 25 years ago to take the burden of inpatient medicine off overworked family physicians. By dividing the workload, we all can have a better quality of life and our patients better care. Doctors are allowed to, and should, have lives and interests outside of medicine.

This hasn’t completely erased the “old guard.” There are still physicians that work themselves into the ground all day, every day. I feel genuine sorrow for those people. Surely their personal lives suffer immensely, and their worlds become very limited and narrow. We are doctors, but our jobs are not our entire lives unless we let them be.

Jenny Hartsock is a hospitalist who blogs at Doctor of a Certain Size.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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