Is it time to bring physician burnout out of the shadows?

Each year, upwards of 400 physicians commit suicide.

Just reading that sentence should be enough to give anyone who has dedicated their life to helping and saving others cause for concern.

Much has changed with medical training and technology in recent decades, and now is the time to also challenge the status quo — to raise awareness about physician burnout and remove the stigma and secrecy that often surrounds it. 

Being able to lead the Illinois Neurological Institute and have an impact on people's lives is a great privilege. Our work in neurosciences revolves around the brain health of our patients, and part of maintaining their brain health is taking care of ourselves and striking a work-life balance.

Without a healthy work-life balance, we as healthcare professionals are at risk of burnout, which is truly our occupational disease. Burnout can lead to impaired judgment, lack of attention to detail and communication failure, which can impact the quality and safety of patient care.

A lack of work-life balance can also lead to things that are much darker: anxiety/depression and suicidal thoughts, marital/family stress, anger issues, and addiction/substance abuse, any of which can lead to dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, professionals leaving their careers.

A few other important statistics to consider:

1. Physicians are twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their work-life balance than the average working adult. In 2015, almost half of physicians reported they were burned out.

2. Medical students' rate of depression is 15 - 30 percent higher than that of the general public.

3. Physicians are more than twice as likely to commit suicide than the general population.

4. Female physicians are 2.5 to 4 times as likely as women in other occupations to commit suicide.

5. Most burned-out physicians are those in the middle of their career (i.e., 11-20 years on the job).

These are national statistics.  We can — and should — do things differently in America. If we recognize and reduce the things that lead to burnout, we can create a supportive environment for physicians that fosters our own brain health and emotional well-being, which, in turn, will allow us to provide the best care for our patients. In this high-paced world of the global internet, we can never really get away from email and work — but we need to and should.

Eight years ago I was in a very bad place in my life. I was one of the statistics — burned out and depressed with suicidal thoughts. Through ultra-running and friendships I control my negativity, but it's an ongoing struggle. Like any disease, the first step is to recognize the problem so you can do something about it.

Kevin Schoeplein, CEO of OSF HealthCare, recently told me "You must celebrate your success along the journey."

He couldn't be more right. We all express and acknowledge our insecurities, but it's how we deal with them and find inner peace that's key. Mind, body and spiritual wellness are essential. If we could channel 20 percent of our negativity into positivity, imagine how much more peaceful we and the world would be!

It is of utmost importance to me that my team of highly educated and driven professionals achieves work-life balance. As a team we are exploring a variety of strategies including nutrition education, exercise, improved quality and quantity of sleep, essential oils, massage therapy, mediation, mindfulness training and taking full advantage of the wellness resources available through OSF HealthCare.

The ultimate goal is to ensure all healthcare providers understand stress management and burnout prevention, and to make resources readily available to help all of us achieve better work-life balance and lead a healthy, purposeful, and spiritual life while continuing to provide compassionate and loving care to those we serve.


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