Robert Bondurant, RN, LCSW, Executive Director, Missouri Physicians Health Program
This article is the first in a series of articles about physician burnout that will appear in the upcoming issues of EPIC.
The Missouri Physicians Health Program (MPHP) is a product of the “physician health movement” begun in the early 1970s. This initiative was undertaken through the collaboration of the AMA and the Federation of State Medical Boards. At that time, their chief interests were substance abuse and suicide among physicians.
Today, while the rates of substance abuse and suicide are still of concern, the primary concern now is physician burnout.
What is physician burnout? Three primary signs and symptoms characterize burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
This is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that is the result of feeling “tapped out” after a day at the office, hospital rounds, being on call, and a constant pressure of things requiring a response.
This is manifested as sarcasm, cynicism or a negative attitude toward patients, staff and job duties. There is no longer a reserve of compassion, patience or resilience.
- Reduced accomplishment
Having experienced the previous symptoms, now the physician questions their personal value and ability to cope. They distance themselves from family, friends, colleagues and patients. They no longer trust their ability and wonder why they should even continue in their profession.
Physician burnout is the beginning or foundation for many other problems that may rise to the level requiring some form of discipline. This would include substance abuse, behavior problems, sexual boundary issues, and decreased clinical performance. The MPHP is rarely referred a physician as being burned out. A referral is usually for negative professional actions such as those listed above.
The MPHP would rather be involved in prevention and not just reaction. We often identify burnout as the root cause of a referral. However, the administration or regulatory agency making the referral rarely is able to identify the cause, only the problematic behavior. Something serious must happen before they become involved.
The MPHP invites any physician to contact us for a confidential, private meeting to discuss any concerns. The meetings are free. We do not judge or blame. We are here to listen and help you to identify the appropriate resources. Please do not consider the MPHP as your opportunity of last resort. We would rather be an early warning source of help.
Our goal is to help physicians remain in the safe practice of medicine. But whatever your needs or problems, we can listen and be supportive. We strive to offer a safe and caring environment where physicians can express themselves without fear.
Please don’t wait until you are a statistic. Do what you tell your patients: “seek help early, not when it is too late.” We operate a 24-hour help line, 800-274-0933, and our clinical staff is readily available to assist someone in distress. The life you save may be your own!