She also battled through illness, the strain of having a terminally ill parent, and marital stresses. “We’re all a mosaic of our experiences,” she said. “I think if you think through what has shaped you, you will find your triggers of burnout.”
Explore this issue:March 2018
She eventually found a job in which she is happy, but only after rearranging her career priorities. “The world has become increasingly more complex, and so it’s hard for all of us to be superstars in clinical care, research, and education,” she said. “So for me it was reframing [the question] ‘How am I going to spend my professional time?’ It was finding that sweet spot. I encourage people to find that sweet spot.”
Focus on What You Enjoy
Peak Woo, MD, clinical professor of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Health System, who also runs a private practice in New York, said the guiding principles he grew up with were working hard, achieving, and saving for a rainy day. These principles led him as an academic physician to be so productive that he had a relative value unit percentage of 200%—numerically, he was the same as two full-time equivalent positions.
But he felt burdened by the faculty metrics and felt he lacked freedom in making decisions on program and funding priorities, he said. “The two things I felt unhappy about were the fairness and the values,” he said. He also lost his zest for teaching. “I didn’t feel like teaching the resident anymore, taking that first-year resident to do a trach. I could do it much faster.” Eventually, he went into private practice, and has been much happier. As physicians reach mid-career, it’s important that they take a “frank look” at their environment. Most physicians, he said, won’t admit to severe burnout. “But, I think mild-moderate burnout is real,” he added.
Dr. Woo said it’s important to have a lifelong mentor and be willing to focus on what you enjoy. “I think it’s important to throw out the things that you don’t love with as much passion and do only the things that you really love passionately,” he said. “And for me, it’s clinical care. It’s being able to give a discount to a poor person who just needs healthcare without having to worry about an institution telling me I can’t.”
Know When to Take a Break
Myles Pensak, MD, chair of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Cincinnati and moderator of the session, said physicians are “probably the single-best group at creating mythology and living into that mythology…. It requires an enormous amount of strength to start to acknowledge what some of the weaknesses are.”