The 3 Warning Signs of Physician Burnout

Depending on the medical specialty, up to 60% of today's physicians admit to feelings of professional burnout. Here's how to spot it before it's too late.

“These days the physicians are often the canary in the coal mine of medicine and that has to change.”

—Dike Drummond, MD

Depending on the medical specialty (i.e., emergency medicine, primary care), up to 60% of today’s physicians admit to feelings of professional burnout. That’s a major wow!

The Journal of General Internal Medicine concludes that “physicians are predisposed to burnout due to internal traits such as compulsiveness, guilt, and self-denial, and a medical culture that emphasizes perfectionism, denial of personal vulnerability, and delayed gratification.”

To overcome this worrisome rise in MD burnout, doctors might want to consider submitting to some coaching, the JGIM reasons, because “coaching presumes that the person already possesses strengths and skills to handle life’s challenges.”

One of the more thoughtful doctor coaches I’ve read about recently is Dike Drummond, MD, the founder and CEO of The Happy MD.

Born in Indiana, Dr. Drummond earned his MD from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota in 1984 and did a Family Practice residency in California. He was a busy family doctor for more than a decade in Washington State. However, in 1999, at age 40, “all the color drained out of my career,” Dr. Drummond explained. “I lost all passion for medicine—both the clinical and business side. It was as if I had hit a brick wall.”

The young doctor said he felt like he “was dying and had no other option but to quit. So I walked away from my fulltime practice. It took me several years to understand burnout was the cause. It was an agonizing time in my life, where I felt burned to the ground yet, strangely, I never felt like quitting was a failure.”

Coming from a family of physicians, Dr. Drummond came to realize that his life could serve as an example for other burned out medical professionals. He became a certified coach for physicians and launched The Happy MD. “I was determined to be a servant and a resource—to end the suffering,” he explained. His timing is just right.

“To be a doctor is a privilege, an honor, a calling requiring each of us to devote a minimum of 7 years and often hundreds of thousands of dollars just to step up to the starting line of our practice,” said Dr. Drummond. “Our health and happiness is the foundation of our ability to care, to heal and to alleviate suffering.”

But before this problem of burnout can be corrected, it must first be identified. So I asked Dr. Drummond to describe the three main signs for physicians:

1) Physical and Emotional Exhaustion

Your tiredness does not respond to rest. You feel all alone—and can’t talk to your spouse about it because they’re tired of hearing you complain. You feel like you are crazy because you have tried everything you can think of to pull up out of this downward spiral, mostly by working harder, and it’s not working.

2) Poor Attitude

You become cynical and sarcastic about your patients and staff. There is an intense desire to vent which only feels good for a minute or two, then it’s back to the gerbil wheel.

3) Reduced Accomplishment

You develop thoughts of “what’s the use, my work doesn’t really serve a purpose anyway.” Or “if I keep going on like this, I am afraid I will make a mistake or someone will get hurt.”

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Can’t Live on Half a Billion?

A few weeks back I wrote that my daughter Lauren would be meeting with Warren Buffett as part of her membership in Fordham University’s Smart Woman Securities group. In April, she and a group of other young ladies got to spend 3 days in Nebraska meeting with the billionaire investor. I’ll share one anecdote from her amazing trip.

Buffett told the students that he regularly talks with people who have a net worth of at least $1 billion. His practice is to ask them if they would be willing to pledge half of their wealth to charity after their death. “Most of them say yes,” said Buffett, “but some say it’s tough to live on $500 million.” The Oracle of Omaha, known for a keen sense of humor, told the group: “I’m going to write a new book, How to Get By On $500 Million.”

For his part, Buffett has pledged to give the vast bulk of his fortune ($72+ billion at last count) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.