I published my first article addressing physician wellness in 2009. Physician wellbeing wasn’t ever part of my academic plan, but over time it became part of my mission. As a Program Director, Dean of Student Affairs, and mentor I watched, and wasn’t always able to help, trainees and colleagues as they struggled. This struggle, which we have (I believe inappropriately) called “burnout” led to weariness, sadness, and distress for almost everyone in my sphere of influence, no matter where they were in their professional journey.
For some it was career limiting.
For some it was life limiting
For some it was fatal.
As physician suicide and burnout in medicine became a reality that couldn’t be ignored, I became part of the movement of healers who began to work with policy makers and hospital administrators to try to make a difference. We worked on ways to convince those in power that this was not just about doing the right thing, but that it helped institutions with their metrics of success since it was clear that physicians in distress affected the bottom line. Despite these efforts, there was rarely any substantial change. In fact, most of us agreed that both objectively and subjectively things were getting worse. I began to realize we weren’t speaking the same language. They were measuring attendance at mandatory wellness training sessions and celebrating “success” because >90% of docs attended. But they weren’t measuring the right thing. They weren’t paying attention to metrics of healer distress, how many of their physicians were quitting their career in medicine, the number of divorces, the rate of substance abuse, or, most tragically, the increasing number of healers who were dying by suicide.
Let me pause here for a minute to state something obvious. I know that policy makers and hospital administrators don’t go to work to make life difficult for the healers in their systems. In fact, I suspect that they are experiencing much of the same distress that we are experiencing because, at its core, the issue here is what we value and how we talk about those values.
I began to wonder if we needed an entirely new approach. So I went back to graduate school. Most of my friends thought it was crazy that at this stage of a classic academic career, I would go back to school, but I did. I enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at Iliff School of Theology to learn new ways to think about values… and different ways to heal.
I will continue to talk about how to eat well at work because our physical well-being is important. I will also keep writing here (and elsewhere) about staying connected with and for others, because our mental health is also important. But in the weeks and months to come I hope to write more about values and how we might work together, healers and administrators, to heal our patients – and each other.