In the wake of Mindful MD: A Physician Wellness & Influence Day hosted by Lightning Bolt Solutions at the end of June, attendee and Lightning Bolt advisory board member Janae Sharp shares her thoughts and research she’s gathered about physician suicide and burnout as the founder of the Sharp Index.
Physicians today have the highest rate of suicide of any profession, with one doctor dying by suicide every day in the U.S. As this issue increasingly receives the media attention it desperately needs, many questions emerge: What’s causing this epidemic? How does physician suicide correlate to the physician burnout crisis? And what are we — as physicians, hospital and health system leaders, and members of the healthcare community — going to do about it?
As a survivor of suicide loss, I founded the Sharp Index to find the answers to these questions, knowing that there are not always perfect answers. While we’ve encountered some institutional efforts to prevent burnout and suicide, there’s a lot more work to do. I was motivated but wanted to partner with physician experts and see how other people can be involved. Everyone plays a role in turning the tide on rising suicide rates. Based on our research and discussions with affected physicians, we’ve learned that we need to transform the traditional approach to physician wellness, burnout, and suicide to improve — and save — more lives.
Lifting the burden from physicians’ shoulders
One of the most prevalent issues we’ve identified in current burnout-prevention and wellness initiatives is that many of these programs treat physicians as though they’re not working hard enough. Instead of building a culture around wellness, it’s addressed as an afterthought. Hospitals host wellness seminars, teach time management and stress reduction skills, and offer mindfulness and resilience training. But however well-intentioned these programs may be, they imply that the solution is for physicians to behave differently; they don’t address the root causes of burnout, and for that reason they prove to be ineffective.
Take yoga programs, for example. Personally, I love yoga and find it hugely beneficial for reducing stress and finding inner strength to keep moving forward. But for overtired, overburdened physicians, the one yoga class they’re maybe able to attend each week — on top of work and family responsibilities — probably won’t prove transformational. Surely, we can’t miss the cruel irony of telling a physician to try harder and be stronger, while simultaneously adding more to their already-full plates.
If physicians could heal themselves on their own, they would. They are not lazy — they are excellent problem-solvers with militant work ethics. In fact, physicians have been telling us for some time now about what’s causing them to burn out — from inefficient EHR systems, to grueling shift schedules, to an overall lack of autonomy — but so many of us haven’t been listening. We’re putting on band-aids when what the system really needs is open-heart surgery.
To paraphrase a popular Chinese proverb, the best time to focus on preventing physician burnout was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now. So what can healthcare leaders do, right now, to make effective changes?
At Sharp Index, we work to engage in meaningful, healing conversation and change the structures and systems that cause burnout to occur in the first place. Here’s how we do it:
1. We use the power of story.
Beginning in residency, physicians are often conditioned to endure traumatic events to the point of fatigue, with no effective outlet for processing and recovering from those memories. Because studies show that sharing our experiences is one of the most powerful ways to begin this healing process, we collect stories from physicians and proactively lead media campaigns to improve the narrative around physician burnout
2. We partner with technology that frees physician time.
So much of the burden on physicians today comes from unnecessary administrative and clerical work that brings operations to a crawl and takes finite physician time away from patients. We partner with technologies working to reduce that burden and make the most of every second of physician time, including:
- Technologies that surface important patient data at critical moments within the physician’s workflow
- Advanced physician shift scheduling software to support work-life balance and patient access
- Integrated, intelligent communication platforms to connect the care team inside and outside the hospital
3. We appeal to healthcare leaders.
Ultimately, to make lasting progress, we must empower physicians to educate financial decision-makers not only about the perils of physician burnout, but also of the potential rewards available when we prevent it. Investing in physicians’ mental health improves patient outcomes, drives down costs, and, most importantly, saves lives. We appeal to leaders from a healthy and productive workforce perspective, even using EHR data to show healthcare leaders how little sleep their employees are getting to illustrate the severity of the problem.
4. We encourage outside support.
No person should have to suffer through the symptoms of burnout alone. Getting the help you truly need, however, can seem like another overwhelming task when you’re already down and out — especially when there’s no framework in place to guide you in the right direction.
Robust support systems are critical in the fight against burnout to remove stigma and shame. We encourage building networks of physicians, leaders, psychiatrists and counselors, family, and members of the community at large to stop burnout before it happens and create a natural path to healing.
For all of our research and analysis, there’s no way to bring back what’s already been lost. What we can do, though, is focus on ways to mitigate burnout now and prevent negative outcomes in the future.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call 1-800-273-8255 to talk to someone now.