Three years ago, Julie Wei, MD, realized she had hit bottom.
Explore this issue:November 2012
After months of plugging along in her life, balancing an academic career as a pediatric otolaryngologist, along with her marriage, infertility and, finally, the opportunity to have and raise a child, Dr. Wei wasn’t happy. “I felt like everyone constantly demanded something from me, and I had nothing left to give,” she said. “I was booked out three months ahead, and I couldn’t take a day off if I wanted to.”
Dr. Wei, now 42 and an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City, even hoped to become a patient at times, as a way to get off the treadmill her life had become. “During my darkest moments, I prayed for terminal illness. I did not understand why, after years of training and finally living my dream life, I felt so angry and exhausted all the time,” she said. “I lost all joy in my work and life despite having a great husband, child, family, friends and career. I also experienced physical symptoms of constant body aches.”
While otolaryngologists overlal report lower burnout rates in comparison with other some other medical specialties such as emergency medicine, family medicine, general internal medicine or obstetrics/gynecology, there are still pockets of the population who, like Dr. Wei, report feeling at least moderately burned out.
Who Is Burned Out and Why?
Burnout, characterized by high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and low levels of personal accomplishment, is measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory. According to research published in August (Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(18):1-9), doctors work 10 more hours a week, on average, than those who work in different fields, and physicians are more likely to say they are unhappy with work—as measured by emotional exhaustion or overall burnout—than are other professionals.
For those who have studied burnout specifically within the otolaryngology field, a few elements seemed to contribute to higher burnout levels. In a 2011 study of 115 otolaryngologists who were alumni of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and who worked in either private practice or academic medicine, researchers found that those who were at an earlier point in their careers, worked longer hours, had more children and were newly married were more likely to report feeling burned out (Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2012;146:234). But only 16 percent of respondents reported high levels of burnout. Overall, “otolaryngology tends to fall on the lower end of burnout,” said Aaron Fletcher, MD, resident physician at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in Iowa City and the study’s lead author. “It’s the nature of the specialty. There aren’t a lot of catastrophes or devastating complications that occur. For most of us, the outcomes are pretty good.”