Medscape's 2016 report and other national surveys indicate that physician burnout in the U.S. has reached unprecedented levels, with over 50% reporting burnout in some specialities--and it is only increasing. Caused when good intentions do not produce the desired outcomes, burnout results in "the extinction of motivation or incentive" (Freudenberger & Richelson). Physicians experience "loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment," which takes a toll on their own wellbeing, their colleagues, their families, and their patients. Without enough personal time, and insufficient support to cope with the vicarious trauma of serving vulnerable populations, healthcare professionals are in crisis.
If we are going to be well as individuals and as a society, we need our physicians to be well. Even when you feel well-rested, nourished, and clear-minded, it is challenging to care for someone else. When they are stressed, depleted, exhausted, and resentful of the system that does not support their own wellbeing, physicians are not equipped to listen and empathize with patients.
Fortunately, teachable practices are proving to alleviate burnout, such as mindfulness training, narrative medicine, and meditation. A study by Krasner and Epstein published in the American Journal of Medicine affirmed that mindfulness training reduced burnout and increased empathy in primary care physicians. These interventions start at the local level, training individual physicians, but have the wide-reaching potential to effect a sea change in our nation’s healthcare culture.
For nearly a decade, I have devoted myself to caring for physicians. I teach narrative medicine and resilience skills in various departments at New York University Langone Medical Center, including OBGYN, Radiology, Anesthesiology and Child Psychiatry. I alsoteach wellbeing to Family Medicine residents at SUNY Downstate. I am a member of NYUMC's Physician Wellbeing Committee, and am conducing research on resilience in OBGYN residents. I also am developing and teaching a longitudinal 4-year resilience and wellbeing curriculum for NYU medical students.
Previously, I have taught narrative medicine, mindfulness, and meditation to medical students, residents, and physicians at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Rutgers University, New York University Medical Center, Lutheran Medical Center, and Cambridge Health Alliance. I developed abortion education curriculum for OBGYN's-in-training that was used at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. I created the narrative medicine curriculum for the Whole Health clinical education program for VA clinicians, developed by the Veterans Health Administration's Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and University of Wisconsin-Madison Integrative Medicine. I also helped facilitate two week-long intensives for the Leadership and Education Program for Students in Integrative Medicine, sponsored by the American Medical Student Association.