a doctor's body looks like it's turning to ash, while a woman faces him with a compassionate smile

Compassion: Patient Role In Physician Burnout

I recently read an article that examined physician burnout. It is certainly easy to not think about physicians burning out or that aspect of your physician's life. The reality is that physicians are people too.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organization indicates that burnout exhibits the following symptoms:1

  • Feeling depleted of energy or exhausted
  • Feeling mentally distanced from or cynical about one’s job
  • Experencing problems with getting their job done successfully

These symptoms hold true for everyone--and physicians are not excluded from this. While I was reading this article, I was really struck by the following statement about humanizing physicians:2

“One way to change this is by training the patient to humanize their doctor. If you hold [physicians] in an idealized state, it might be hard for them to come to terms with their own struggles.”

How would we teach patients to do this? Is this a priority in the doctor/patient relationship? Do you feel you hold your physician in an idealized state?

Do we idealize our physicians?

Personally, I am not sure that I necessarily hold my physicians in an idealized state, although I could see this holding true. If I think of my parents' generation, or even when I have taken my grandparents to appointments, there has been an emphasis placed on the value of the physician's opinion or expertise--almost a miracle worker status that was placed on them to cure their ails.

My experience with physician burnout

My experience has not yielded the same feelings, especially in specialist and complex care. I have had a complex relationship with my pulmonologist. We have not always agreed; there was weighing through a sea of ego to find common goals and shared responsibilities. We have even been a phase where I believe they were in burnout and even considered leaving medicine.

I know you must be thinking, "How could you stay with this physician?" Honestly, I thought about leaving and I made efforts to. However, due to the limited options of expertise available locally and the fact that they know my case, it just wasn’t that simple.

They took a leave of absence, which I now realize may have been them being on more than a vacation, and came back with a renewed energy. While it wasn’t a battle I could fight for my physician, I am not sure if I had a role in this situation. I think it all got unfolded with me being under their care at the time.

Is there a patient role in physician burnout?

I don't claim to know the right answer to this situation. However, I do wonder how the patient could be trained to humanize them. I believe there are other battles at play that would take precedent, such as shared decision making, valuing the patients lived experiences, or even finding ways to work better together.

It is thought that medical education has a role to play in how physicians are taught to deal with a crisis and the physical, emotional, and mental impacts. It is thought that compassion fatigue is an important factor.

Compassion fatigue is when you, "no longer have the capacity to feel compassion."2 It is often seen in medical students as they advance through their degrees. Finding ways to train physicians to deal with these burdens is becoming a focus in medical education, especially as the stigma around physician burnout changes.

I would love to know your thoughts on the role of the patient in physician burnout. Leave a comment below!

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