Combat Physician Burnout with the Joy of Bedside Medicine

Whether physician burnout manifests as a topic of conversation in hospital breakrooms, a headline in the news or a personal challenge that you experience in your own practice, this feeling of exhaustion is widespread. If you are a physician and find yourself struggling with a sense of detachment, decreased satisfaction and tiredness, you are not alone.

While awareness of the topic has gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of physician burnout is not new. In fact, Stanford Medicine’s Tait Shanafelt, MD, brought the issue to the forefront of national conversation in 2002 with a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. His research examined burnout among medical residents and determined that the fatigue was detrimental not only to physicians but also to patient health and care quality.

Ongoing research has shed light on various tactics to prevent and address this issue, and we encourage physicians, medical educators and learners to explore as many mitigations as possible. In addition, we believe it is valuable to recognize that reconnecting with our love for bedside medicine and patient care can, in itself, be restorative.

The Restorative Effect of Delivering Bedside Medicine

We’ve previously highlighted an essay by Mid Coast Medical Group primary care physician Paul Hyman on the benefits of the bedside physical exam for both patient and physician. Hyman recognizes the physical exam as not only an important tool for human connection and diagnosis but also as a source of calmness and confidence for both parties. In other words, the physical exam acts as ritual that provides comfort and meaning for both patient and provider.

Another Stanford Medicine 25 blog post spotlights an enlightening conversation between Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, and Twitter personality Zubin Damania. In the interview, they discuss the clinical importance of the physical exam, as well as the satisfaction it can provide physicians. Their hour-long conversation focuses on the joy that physicians experience from being skilled diagnosticians at the bedside. “There are certain diagnoses that can only be made through a physical exam,” says Verghese, “and there is joy in discovering how much your eyes can tell you.” Ultimately, Verghese explains, the physical exam serves the human relationship—a critical component of healing—in medicine.

How Physicians and Medical Learners Rediscover Passion in a Challenging Time

We’re glad to see other physicians place similar emphasis on the satisfaction that comes from being at the bedside. In a CLOSLER essay, Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Souvik Chatterjee, MD, reflects on an idea that motivated him during some of the most challenging times in the pandemic. “During the first wave(s) of COVID, our team had to spend a lot of energy to simply do our job,” he explains. “It was harder and there were many steps to just get into the room, but through this I often reminded myself that a person was sick, and I had to care for them. I do this as an act of service, and it’s rewarding. I appreciate ‘healthcare heroes,’ but we don’t need this recognition. It’s a privilege to heal the sick.”

To further cope with his feelings of pandemic fatigue, Chatterjee leans heavily on his personal and professional support teams and aims to find forgiveness for patients who chose not to receive the vaccine. “Forgiveness comes easier as I cultivate the patient-physician relationship, as I learn more about the patient as a person and learn about their family. It is by no means easy but can and must be practiced.”

Liana Meffert, a fourth-year medical student at University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine, encourages struggling healthcare providers to find time to pursue creative outlets. In a Medscape essay, she highlights the role hobbies play in decreasing burnout and rekindling the passion for medicine.

Meffert describes writing as an activity that promotes her sense of wellbeing. “As I begin residency, writing is a more valuable tool than ever for nurturing my sense of self-worth,” she explains. “It also provides you, as a healthcare provider, an insurance policy for your sense of self for the days and nights in the hospital that seem like they tally more failures than successes,” she adds. Writing also helps her embrace the strengths of those who surround her. “Writing is a chance to be newly inspired by medicine, patients and colleagues,” she says.

Whether you feel rejuvenated through creativity, the support of loved ones or acts of service, or networking with people who share your enthusiasm for bedside patient care, we encourage you to explore activities that help you reconnect with your passion for medicine. We believe this will lead to greater fulfillment and better outcomes.

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