Physicians Are Burned Out, And I Think I Know Why

 

On Christmas Eve 2017, I wrote a post on Facebook about two women physicians who were not going to get to see their families on Christmas Day because they had to unexpectedly work due to a scheduling mix up.

Say a special prayer for physicians this Holiday Season. I know two women physicians who won’t get to see their families on Christmas because they are working today and the doctors who were supposed to relieve them are not able to work. That means that these “mommy docs” have to stay at work until someone else is able to come to work. One doc is stuck at work until 12/27. They will miss yet another Christmas with their children.

As physicians, we can’t “just leave” when our shift is over or “just not go to work”. That would be considered abandonment of patients. We have to stay until all the work is done and make sure that all patients are covered by another physician.

So, while you are celebrating Christmas with your family, say a special prayer for and say, “thank you” to the ER doc working in the ED, the obstetrician delivering your baby, the neonatologist caring for your preemie, and your primary care physician answering your calls after hours.

This is just another example of how physicians sacrifice time away from their families while taking care of yours.

#heartofadoctor

The response to this post was overwhelming positive. My post was shared over 100 times by other physicians. However, there were a few negative responses and these negative responses highlight the reasons many physicians suffer from burn out.

Negative Response #1: You Chose It.

Sadly, other health care workers gave this response. They said that we physicians “chose the profession” and that working long hours and being away from your family come with the territory. Ummm… we physicians know this, but sometimes our chosen profession sucks and it is ok for us to acknowledge this. By saying that “we chose it” implies that we have to accept the long, unsafe, and sometimes inhumane working conditions that sometimes plague our profession. This contributes to a toxic work environment and leads to physician burn out.

Negative Response #2: Other People Work Long Hours, Too.

This response was given by non-physician health care workers as well as people who don’t work in the health care industry. We all know that some other professions work on holidays and work long hours that require them to be away from their families. However, my post was about PHYSICIANS. Inevitably when physicians write pieces supporting other physicians, many non-physicians chime in with their negative comments admonishing us to “remember the nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, janitors, first responders, cafeteria workers, etc.” who are all “members of the health care team”.

It is like we physicians can’t have anything for ourselves. When non-physicians comment on these posts and demand that we acknowledge their contributions, they are attempting to minimize the contributions and experiences of physicians. This “me too” attitude contributes to physician burn out because it sends the message that our feelings and experiences as physicians are not valid.

Negative Response #3: But Physicians Make a Lot of Money

First of all, many physicians do not “make a lot of money”. When you look at the amount of money earned versus the number of hours worked, the hourly wage of many physicians is lower than many would expect. Furthermore, many physicians are burdened with over $200,000 in student loan debt. However, “making a lot of money” is of little consolation when you are tired, burned out, isolated, alone, or sick. When you are missing your loved ones, your “big salary” is of little comfort. This notion that physicians make a lot of money, so everything must be ok, contributes to physician burn out because it implies that we must endure work conditions that make us unhappy just because “we make good money”.

 

All the negative responses to my Facebook post contribute to physician burn out. These responses served to invalidate and belittle our experiences. It is for this reason that many physicians feel guilty about being disillusioned about their medical career. It is the reason that many physicians are reluctant to speak out, and as a result, are burned out.

 

7 Comments

  • William Hudson Posted December 29, 2017 3:03 pm

    Hi, I completely agree with you. As a Physician myself now and after being an RN since 1989 in the past 28 years I have had on a few years of every holiday and that was during Medical School. And even then I spent most of my break studying. Until I was a Physician I had no idea how different it was to not only work most holidays but to do them with 24 hour shifts. What the public and even some others in health care do not understand is as Physicians we are expected to be available 24/7. Our shift never ends. We don’t work 7-3 on Christmas or 11-7 we work 24 hours most times at a time. I’m writing this while on one of those 24 ( 26) hour days. Instead of a little empathy or a thank you from people we get the responses many times you posted. If people truly understood its not the money its the love of the profession and our work that keeps us here.

  • Iroso Posted December 29, 2017 4:16 pm

    Great post Dr. Freeman. I was certainly one of those mommydocs who had to explain to my children why I can’t be home for Christmas. Yes, we chose this career but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t human..

  • Denise Hunter Posted December 30, 2017 4:48 am

    So true

  • Amber Kuhl Posted January 1, 2018 7:09 am

    Keep writing!

  • Anna Mccall Posted January 2, 2018 10:30 am

    Thank you for putting this so well! Appreciate you addressing the negative comments. I appreciate your work ! You really inspired me to seek more meaningful career choices!

  • Renee Posted January 6, 2018 9:38 pm

    Great post, doc! Unfortunately, the responses that you received are a part of the American culture of putting work before family and well being. I’m reminded of an American doc who moved to New Zealand to work. After several months of working, she was called to an administrator’s office and asked why she had not taken any holiday (vacation time), yet. When will we recognize that having some time away from work actually makes us more productive at work in the long run? Thanks again!

  • Obdoc Posted January 21, 2018 5:05 am

    I agree completely with this post, but lets call this what it is: It is abuse, not burn out. The term burn out implies that the physician is weak not that they are essentially victims of inhumane working conditions. It’s not the physicians that need fixing, it is the system. I am currently taking call 24/7 as there is NO ONE to provide call coverage. I would be grateful for o e of those 24 hour shifts.

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