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Doctors: Reducing burnout means caring for yourself when caring for others

By Carley Thornell | August 18, 2020

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Bay Area gynecologist Katherine Gregory compares physician burnout to a familiar scenario: the ubiquitous airplane instructional video about putting on your oxygen mask first in emergencies before helping others. “That lesson has to resonate with physicians,” she said. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, if you’re not getting rest, if you’re not drawing boundaries between yourself and work, it’s not going to serve your patients well, it won’t help your colleagues, and eventually it will take a toll on your personal life.”

So the prescription for managing burnout may start with the physician, but Gregory recognizes that doctors often put themselves last. So, what does she suggest? The right tools, right mind-set, and administrative structure can go far, she said. Gregory recently teamed up with Dr. Craig Summers, a managing partner and founder of Children’s Medical Group of Hamden, Connecticut, to share insights on how to proactively address feeling overwhelmed at work — even during a pandemic. 

Personalize the patient experience

For Summers, much of his stress comes from what he calls the “depersonalization” of the patient experience. “At the end of the day, personalizing the patient encounter is what I thrive on — the things I’m able to do to and add on to have more eye contact with my patients,” he said. “I can now go into a room and not stare at a screen, other than to perhaps show a growth chart to a patient.” 

Combating depersonalization included personalizing the way his practice templated electronic clinical records. They also added a third-party app for comprehensive advance check-ins and prebuilt voice-activated macros, and are able to use integrated documentation for telemedicine. The result is everything is “teed up” and there’s much less documentation in the exam room. “It’s a real home run for my personal and family life,” he said. “Most of the time I can complete all encounters before I leave the office.”

Take care of your own health and wellness

Summers advises colleagues in the same way he counsels many of his pediatrics patients — a proper diet, sleep, and exercise go a long way. “If burnout includes emotional exhaustion, I feel like the right attitude can avoid that — I [also] tell my adolescent patients that exercise is your own personal endorphin.” 

His other advice is to maintain a healthy social network. “You need to be able to find something to laugh about and smile about every day,” he said. “It really turns a day around when you have your social contacts” beyond work. 

Stay positive 

Having a glass-half-full approach can go a long way, advises Summers. For him, looking back on decades in practice and all of the nighttime calls and positive outcomes only decrease his anxiety levels. And now the ability to actually see the patient with telehealth services should help even more. 

“Taking a call at night for an infant with a fever is potentially a harrowing thing for both the family and the physicians. To think you’re potentially waiting another six hours to actually see the patient to know the child is OK” can be stressful, he said. “But if you remain confident in your abilities, you should be able to sleep better.” 

What to give, take

There’s a balance between administrative control and outsourcing that can assuage burnout, say both doctors. Operating an independent practice gives physicians greater control over their schedules, growth plans, and more, says Summers. As for Gregory, she says she no longer feels burned out because of her approach. “The immediate question I ask is, ‘Is there some way I can outsource this or get technology to help?’” she said. “I’ve been able to avoid feeling overwhelmed by increasing my support team so I can do what I do best — that’s taking care of patients, and not HR, paperwork, or data entry.”

To hear more from Drs. Summers and Gregory, watch this webinar.