We Have The Power To Heal Ourselves

Taylor, Sara

One of the most lethal diseases that threatens the medical profession cannot be diagnosed by a panel of investigations. Those afflicted may appear symptom free and are often the last to seek medical treatment. I have seen it in the faces of colleagues many times. I see it trying to invade my own home, into the very core of my husband. My husband also a physician, has chosen a specialty that appears desirable, but carries with it significant risk factors. Inflexibility, constant interruptions, high work volume, isolation and work-life imbalance.


Yes, this is an epidemic that physicians are facing, one that can predicted, prevented and extinguished. It is silent, but in an instant can tear apart your once hopeful soul filled with grandiose ideas of helping patients and reaching out to their families. It not only affects physicians, but also their loved ones, their community and the health care system as a whole. It is time to have an honest conversation about this malignant stress-related disease unaffectionately know as burnout.

“I have heard this term thrown around many times, but what really is burnout?”

When I was in medical school and residency in the late 1990’s, exhaustion, stress, sleep deprivation, and sacrifice were enmeshed with medical training. I vividly remember asking my senior resident during an OB/Gyne rotation how she was managing the demands of her career and a new baby of her own. As she started to assemble her breast pump for her 3 month old baby she replied, “You have to put your feelings aside and accept the responsibilities of being a physician. I will sleep when I die”. I was left feeling unsettled. Did I really have to put aside my personal goals to practice medicine?

This is where burnout comes in. Feeling overwhelmed with the pressures of intense human suffering, time constraints and the business of medicine can lead to exhaustion, irritability, depersonalization and poor concentration. Consequently this can lead to relationship difficulties in every aspect of a physician’s life. Without purpose and passion, a once vibrant healer can be in desperate need of healing themself. Despite physician wellness resources that are available, feelings of shame and embarrassment may lead a physician in need to seek solace in substances such and drugs and alcohol.

“But how can we change the culture of medicine toward balance and burnout prevention?”

My experiences as a clinician, and more recently as a blogger, have taught me two critical ingredients in the fight against physician burnout: communication and compassion. Communication is a vital component of physician-patient relationships, but also in self-expression, self-care and self-preservation. Our ability to display vulnerability plays an integral part in working towards a solution to the imminent problems we face in our helping profession. Compassion I have discovered is as beneficial to the person displaying it as it is to the person receiving it. When you are compassionate you not only recognize another person’s suffering but you also have a desire to help minimize that person’s suffering. When you take the time to explore your patient’s feelings and concerns and you hear them say, “I feel much better”, chances are you do too.

“How can I actively manage the stress in my life?”

Communication and compassion will balance some of the stress in your life, but may not be enough to stave off symptoms of stress overload and burnout. Not only can we play a part in healing our patients, but also we can also unapologetically play an active role in healing ourselves. Focus on you, the person behind the stethoscope, not who is defined by it. Learn to meditate, practice gratitude, become more mindful, engage in mind body exercises such as yoga, tap into your creative self, enjoy nature, laugh with your family, and create space between you and your work.

“My dear husband, be unafraid to heal yourself. We have to change this culture of overworking when it comes to patient care. We have to move toward a system that supports having an honest conversation about preventing feelings of burnout and supporting one another in the medical profession.”

Being a very intelligent man, he knows all of this to be true. He continues to push this menacing threat of burnout towards the door, allowing self-compassion to enter.

Goodbye burnout.

Theme: Family | Famille
Theme: Health Care Delivery | Prestation des soins de santé
Theme: Physicians | Médecins

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.




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