A cerebral approach to overcoming burnout

When I was in third grade, my school got a grant to promote women in the sciences. Once a month we would be invited to the auditorium where a different scientist would teach us about their expertise, from physics to astronomy.

One fateful month, the great Marian C. Diamond visited our school and brought a human brain. She let us touch it as she told us about anatomy and neuroscience. I went home that day and told my mother I was going to study the brain. I never changed my mind.

Many years later I was working as a neurologist and the medical director for a thriving stroke program in Washington. Treating acute strokes is a fast and furious effort, and if you overwork, you can easily burn out. Unfortunately for me, I did exactly that. I needed a break and needed to reconnect with my family.

I lost the desire for Neurology I had nurtured since childhood. My professional life had eclipsed my personal life, and when I was home, I wasn’t really “home.” I realized it was time to step back, remember those formative moments of my youth and reconnect with my family.

I also felt I needed to find something different if I was going to continue practicing Neurology. Fortunately, as often happens in our lives, the end of one opportunity was simply the beginning of something new.

Looking for the spark with locum tenens

Around the time I burned out and parted ways with my hospital, I began looking for something to help me find the spark again. One option that stood out to me was locum tenens. I had worked with locum tenens physicians in my role as a medical director, and had always been impressed with their resumes and abilities. I was also drawn to the support locum tenens gives to hospitals and clinics in areas that are suffering from their own staffing shortages.

I reached out to CompHealth, one of the biggest locum tenens providers in the industry, and before long I began working at a few different assignments. Working in new places and expanding my horizons helped me find my balance, reignite that spark and prepare me for new opportunities. Eventually, one of my locum tenens positions led me to an alternate hospital back in Spokane, which ended up being an ideal spot for me and where I was offered a permanent job.

Despite having a permanent spot in Spokane, I still work occasional locum tenens in Idaho Falls when they need coverage for just a day or two. The facility where I work has only one neurologist to cover the hospitals. The administrators can’t afford to have him burn out as so many have, so they utilize locum doctors, such as myself, to help alleviate the burden.

Flexibility, freedom and family time

Between my permanent spot and locum tenens assignments, my current work balance is about .7 FTE. This flexibility gives me time to take on extra projects and interests, like volunteering with the state Department of Health, both in Seattle and here locally in Spokane. I work in Idaho Falls for relatively small chunks at a time. These random multi-day blocks of locum tenens time really works well for me and my lifestyle.

My two kids are at an age where they really need their mom, and that is where working locum tenens has had the biggest impact in my personal life. Even though I travel more, I am actually “gone” less. When I am with my family, I am there, in the present, and not halfway at work like I have been in the past.

When I travel to Idaho Falls for locum tenens work, I drop my kids off at school in the morning, catch my flight, complete my assignment, and am back home in time for dinner and homework a few days later.

Benefits from the medical community

Working with physicians in other places provides a level of interaction that can be easy to overlook when you have been in one spot for a long time. A lot of medical personnel are experiencing burnout – 46 percent of physicians and 60 percent of neurologists – and they end up paying for that with their health and quality of life.

Locum tenens jobs enable physicians to learn new techniques and offer different perspectives within the medical community. I have been able to share my own knowledge with amazing professionals in many different facilities, and learned from them in return. This helps us all become better doctors in the long run.

As a person passionate about practicing medicine, I particularly appreciate how locum tenens enables a variety of physicians to fit many different jobs. This flexibility gives me more time with each of my patients, so I can actually spend sixty minutes with them, talking through lifestyle changes or helping plan for success.

That is when I feel most like a doctor. When I can walk out of a room not feeling rushed, and knowing my patient is really committed to making changes in their life.

There is a lovely quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, giving advice to a young man who was trying to decide whether he wanted to be a writer or a soldier. Rilke replied, “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing . . . then you are a writer.” I feel the very same way about being a physician. I could not be anything else.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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