PHYSICIAN SUICIDE AND BURNOUT

Would it surprise you if I told you that physician suicide is at an all time high?  Would it surprise you to find out that, by profession, more suicides occur among physicians than any other profession?  Not only should it surprise you, it should outrage you!  

When I was 13 years old, I told my physician that I was going to be his partner.  Dr Perlman told me that the medical field was changing, and I should entertain other professions.  When I was 18 and going to college, I again told Dr P. that I would be joining him in practice and he again warned me of the changes which were coming.

At 21, I called my doc to inform him that I’d be going to medical school and that I would be specializing in Family Medicine and joining him in the not to distant future.  Again, he warned me, telling me the changes he saw coming were bad. 

Unfortunately, he got sick before I graduated and had to sell his practice.  Sound familiar?  Dr Perlman was a visionary and his vision unfortunately was accurate.  My profession has gone to hell.  Not long ago, I asked myself why I failed to heed his warnings.  The answer was obvious.

For me, medicine was a calling.  One I had to answer.  Now, 40 years later, if your child asked me what I thought about her/him going into medicine, I would answer a resounding yes.  I would also repeat Dr. Perlman’s warning that medicine as I knew it has changed radically and not for the better.  What has not changed is the need for doctors who answer the call and care for those lives who have chosen to ask for help.

Since publishing “Sorry,” I have experienced an outpouring of love and respect from those who I cared for over the years.  The stories they tell, the thanks they give have been heartwarming.   I have cried, laughed and smiled knowing that medicine is truly a calling and now my patients are answering my call, a call for understanding as I exit their lives to care for mine.

Doctors need to learn or be taught how to take care for themselves as well as their patients.  I would love to teach this concept in medical school.  Perhaps, doctors should learn how to be patients prior to practicing medicine. I now know what it is like to be a patient and the view from this side of the exam room is radically different from what I learned in medical school and residency.

Yes, residency is barbaric.  If it were not for teachers like Drs. Edward Lack, Ken Miller, and William Arnold, I would not have made it through my residency.  The reality of the practice of medicine is, after residency, it is even more daunting.  Daily you hold your patients’ lives in your hands while having the government and insurance companies suck the life out of you with their electronic medical record demands, paperwork requirements and redundant requests for information already supplied.  

Unfortunately, the insurance industry will insinuate itself between you and your patient.  Yes, dealing with them will drain your energy, but know this:  if you and your patient team up and work as one, you will win the majority of the battles; and when you lose, you’ll know that you did the best you could. So will your patient.

You will lose patients and you will mourn their loss.  It is the nature of medicine.  And you will make mistakes, you are only human.  Forgive yourself, learn and move on.  If the pain of loss becomes too great to endure, follow the advice you would give a patient, quietly get counseling.  Write about your feelings and share them with other physicians and patients.  If necessary, do so anonymously.

Believe it or not, state medical boards will punish physicians for seeking counseling.  Isn’t that insane?  Insane, yes, but not a reason to commit suicide.  Letting your fellow physicians care for you during your time of need will help restore you.

The most powerful tool available for restoring a physician’s soul is hearing from her/his patients.  The letters and calls I’ve received have been incredible.  Perhaps, telling your physician how you feel while she/he is still caring for you would go a long way to reducing physician burnout and suicide.

Live wellthy.  Take care of yourself and others, and don’t give up!    

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