SCOTTSDALE—Being aware of the warning signs, finding supportive colleagues, and being courageous enough to make changes are some of the keys to maintaining physician wellness and tackling burnout, a panel of otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeons said in a discussion at the Triological Society Combined Sections Meeting.
Explore this issue:March 2018
During a session in which panelists seemed determined to help other clinicians and surgeons overcome the taboo of taking breathers and making career adjustments to preserve their own well-being, an experienced group of otolaryngologists opened up about how they struggled to strike a balance in their own lives and how they managed to right the ship.
Finding the Joy
Julie Wei, MD, surgeon-in-chief and chief of pediatric otolaryngology and audiology at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, said that, early in her career, she was consumed with checking “all the boxes” as an academic faculty: high volume clinical patient care, teaching of residents/fellows, mentoring others, research and publications, committee work, society work, and every task presented to her. And it took a major toll on her entire being and led to her high degree of burnout. Her work week was dominated by clinical care, and nights and weekends were largely spent on all other professional pursuits, when, in fact, “we should be resting,” she said.
“Physicians/surgeons have years of experiencing the need to “push” ourselves, and it’s who we are, to just keep doing more, and often without very clear, laser focus on what not to do,” she added. “It came at a significant cost.” When she was about 40 years old, she began to wake up in physical pain. It got so bad that she started to crave a diagnosis for herself that would allow her to “get off the treadmill.”
“I’m living this dream life, I make a blessed living, I have my beautiful family,” she said. But she was irritable and angry all the time. “Every time the pager went off, some expletive went on in my head. I didn’t know what joy meant,” she added. She was eventually helped by personal and marital counseling, and from getting a sense of perspective at a mid-career women faculty development seminar organized by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
She eventually made a career change, taking on a leadership role as division chief and joined Nemours Children’s Health System, where she still works hard but with insight and struggles to do “less” with focus. She has made it a point to raise awareness about physician wellness within and outside her organization. “I can tell you today where the joy always is, without question,” she said. “It’s direct patient care and when I am with my family.”
It’s hard for all of us to be superstars in clinical care, research, and education. For me, it was finding that sweet spot. —Dana Thompson, MD
Practice What You Preach
Michael Johns, MD, director of the University of Southern California Voice Center at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in Los Angeles, said he began researching burnout early in his career because he thought it was an expedient way to bolster his academic credentials, when it finally began to dawn on him that he was violating the very principles he was promoting in his research. “Most of us get involved in scholarship because we’re, to a certain extent, content experts,” he said. “We have expertise about a topic, and we have something that we want to contribute. This was not true for me and burnout.”