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Four Myths that Fuel Physician Burnout— And How to Combat Them

You’re emotionally exhausted. You don’t feel a personal connection to your practice. Perhaps worst of all, you don’t have a sense that you’re providing effective care to your patients—the whole reason you got into medicine to begin with.

Sound familiar? These are the key symptoms of physician burnout—and more than half of U.S. physicians experience them. Not only is the problem widespread, it’s growing. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a shortage of 90,000 physicians in the next decade.

Burnout is complex, but much of it stems from the healthcare landscape changing so rapidly,” says Dr. Sunita Mishra, Chief Executive of Express Care for Providence St. Joseph Health. “There is a widening gap between what physicians are trained for and expected to accomplish—and what the realities of the day-to-day independent practice entail,” she says.

This gap is the result of many things, from ever-changing government regulations to an evolving patient-provider relationship. But advances in technology may be the chief culprit. “The impact of the EHR can’t be understated,” says Rachelle Daugherty, Chief Executive at Provider Solutions + Development, a provider staffing company. “These technologies present a huge learning curve, and a much bigger piece of the puzzle than most physicians expect. The overwhelming sentiment is: I didn’t sign up for this.”

There’s no doubt the changing healthcare landscape is taking its toll on physicians struggling to keep up with escalating demands of an already strenuous profession. But how are our overall attitudes about healthcare and its providers contributing to this situation?

In this article, we’ll explore four pervasive myths that can create the conditions for burnout—and offer a few suggestions on how independent physicians can shift their approach to one that’s more sustainable and fulfilling.

MYTH #1: Your lab coat is basically a superhero cape.

There’s a long-standing, weighty idea within medical culture that says doctors are expected to be superhuman saviors, solely responsible for solving every health problem for every patient. No one can live up to this ideal, and this immense pressure is only compounded by increasing complexities of the practice environment (EHRs, etc) and changing patient relationships (more informed patients require a less dogmatic approach).

“Take the onus off of you to make every single patient visit amazing,” says Daugherty. “Instead, try at the beginning of the day to commit to making encounters meaningful with 2 to 3 of your patients a day. Then check back with yourself at the end of the day and ask—was I present? Was I engaged? Reflect on what made each encounter meaningful.”

It’s a simple tip, but it works. “When people implement this habit, you see a decrease in stories about burnout,” says Daughtery. “There are so many things physicians don’t have control over—this is one way to get back to what drew them to practice in the first place.”

MYTH #2: Med school prepares you for a healthcare career.

While medical school may equip doctors with the “how” of a medical career —the skills, knowledge, and hands-on practice necessary to deliver high quality care, the “why” is often a small or completely absent part of the curriculum. Many physicians don’t have formal training on how to cultivate a strong sense of meaning and purpose in their jobs. When the symptoms of burnout strike, that’s one of the first things to suffer.

Some health systems are creating programs to help overwhelmed doctors discover (or re-discover) a deeper sense of motivation to rise above the tough times. The recently launched “Own It” initiative at Providence St. Joseph Health is one such program, having trained 12,000 doctors in ways to better connect with their purpose.

You can do this work on your own, too. Set aside time to reflect on why you chose to pursue medicine, and put your thoughts down in writing. Keep those statements handy, and re-read them to yourself daily or weekly basis. The more in touch you are with your “why,” the better equipped you’ll be to handle the inevitable rough patches.

MYTH #3: You need to be a jack-of-all-trades.

For an independent physician, keeping up with the daily tasks of running a practice can be overwhelming. Between dealing with payors, hiring providers, managing revenue cycles, and understanding billing codes, it’s easy to get buried in tasks. It feels like responsibilities keep piling on because they are—independent physicians today are expected to do more and more within the same period of time.

The truth is, no one can excel at everything. As leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”

So, in many cases, the best move is to stick with what you love and are good at—caring for patients—and delegate the rest. The good news is that as healthcare has gotten more complex, products and services have been developed to help physicians manage everything outside of the actual practice of medicine. With less administrative burden on your plate, you’re less vulnerable to burnout—and you’ll deliver better care to your patients too.

MYTH #4: The burnout epidemic will eventually get better on its own.

Physicians who are experiencing burnout often react in one of two ways. Some simply continue what they’re doing, struggling to survive, and hoping things get better. Others look for ways to stop practicing entirely—either by taking an administrative position in healthcare or leaving the industry altogether. Obviously both of these are rather extreme, and neither is ideal.

There’s a third, more sustainable approach—one that centers around community. Despite the moniker, no independent physician is an island. Recognize that you’re not alone—and that by proactively teaming up with the wider healthcare community, even in very small ways, you can help bring about real progress to reduce and even eliminate burnout.

Investigate what your health system or local physicians organizations are doing to combat the problem—and vote with your checkbook. Lend your voice. Get to know the people fighting on your behalf, and empower them. When you no longer feel alone and overwhelmed, you will have discovered the key to sustainable engagement.

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