My husband, a local hospitalist in town, came home from work a few nights ago very tired. During his 14 hour work day, he had seen and treated quite a few sick patients and I could tell several of the sickest were still on his mind.  Sensing he needed to unwind, I sat quietly on the couch with him for a few minutes – both of us deep in our own thoughts.

After a few minutes, he seemed to relax enough for me to ask – “How was your day?”

The medical profession is not the only profession with long days and hours, but it is certainly unique in its daily interactions with people.  Physicians, like my husband, treat the very sickest of patients – patients suffering from all types of illnesses – patients who are in the battle of their lives.

I reflected on all of this as I sat next to my husband.  I hoped he would continue to feel fulfilled in his career choice and not feel the effects of physician burnout.

burnoutResearch over the past 10 years has shown that burnout – defined as emotional exhaustion, detachment, and a low sense of personal accomplishment – is widespread in medical students and residents.

However a more recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that the problem extends far beyond doctors in training.   45.8% of all physicians surveyed in this study reported at least one symptom of burnout, with the highest rate of burnout reported in physicians practicing in family medicine, general internal medicine, and emergency medicine.

In fact, according to this study, career burnout is more common with physicians than any other US workers.

Doctors suffering from burnout are more prone to errors, are less empathetic and are more likely to ignore the human side of a patient’s illness.  They are also more likely to quit practicing altogether, a trend with serious repercussions in a system already faced with a shortage of primary care physicians.   Physician burnout has also been associated with reduced patient satisfaction.

Dr. Mary Catherine Beach, professor at John Hopkins University, offers increased “mindfulness” as a possible solution to physician burnout.  Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and attentive in the moment.  Beach authored a study that suggests training in mindfulness can help doctors become more focused, more emphatic, and less emotionally detached.  Less mindful clinicians are more likely to make an error in diagnosis and miss opportunities to be empathetic.

Whether increased “mindfulness” is effective or not, it does shed light on one issue often overlooked by physicians – the physician’s own health and well being.  According to Dr. Beach, “[m]indfulness allows a doctor to help patients by listening more, talking less, and seeing what the patients need …” but it also “gives doctors permission to attend to their own health and well-being …”

I think Beech’s point is well taken.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that a healthy physician is a much better physician.