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It’s OK for physicians to say they’re struggling

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Physicians are trained to assess and care for patients who walk through their hospital or clinic doors. Few of us are prepared to watch for signs that one of our colleagues may need help.

That changed for me with one trauma case. I came into the emergency department as the patient arrived — a 33-year-old female with multiple, self-inflicted stab wounds. I walked around the corner to the trauma bay and was stunned to find a familiar person in the bed. The patient was a colleague of mine, a physician I worked with and knew both professionally and personally.

As she was being prepared to go to the operating room, I was able to speak with her. Her care was in the hands of an excellent trauma surgeon, so I was confident she’d do OK. But later I received a call from the surgeon explaining she didn’t make it.

I was devastated. I kept wondering how someone so young, so incredibly bright could do this to themselves. I talked to one of her friends who told me she had felt hopeless. That still rings in my head to this day.

I understand that — in general — physicians are not comfortable being on the other side of the bedrail, being patients. It’s very difficult for us to admit when we’re having trouble. I’ve been there myself. But we’ve got to change our attitudes and our actions around seeking and offering help during difficult times. There are far too many stories about physicians like my colleague.

In fact, statistics indicate that physician burnout — an important risk factor for suicide — is on the rise, and there are any number of factors that may be contributing. Medical students are graduating with greater debt than ever before, possibly contributing to a sense of being “trapped” in their jobs to pay off their education. Increasing documentation and reporting requirements also are raising physicians’ administrative workload, while at the same time reimbursement pressure creates urgency to treat more patients.

A Medscape survey released this year showed 51 percent of physicians reported frequent or constant feelings of burnout. Among some specialties, the rates are even higher — 59 percent among emergency medicine physicians, 56 percent in OB/GYN, and 55 percent in internal and family medicine. Physicians are up to 15 times more likely to experience burnout than those in other professions.

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