Here Are Four Ways to Boost Morale and Ward Off Physician Burnout

By Cheryl Alkon
August 14, 2017

Keeping a “brag book” of accolades is one strategy to maintain personal motivation and inspire staff members.

When a senior-level physician screamed at a sub-intern at Temple University Hospital over a patient’s behavior, it shook the fourth-year medical student.

 But instead of getting mad, she did research.

 “[The physician used] vulgar language to describe a patient and [flew] into a rage because a sub-intern called her,” Erin Barnes, now a recent graduate of Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine, wrote in Stat. “The interaction shook me, mostly because I knew I wasn’t immune to becoming a doctor like her. I started looking for answers about how or why this transformation takes place.”

 For the rest of her fourth year, Barnes asked other doctors she interacted with about how to avoid physician burnout. What stood out, she wrote, was a pediatric neurologist who compiled his own “brag book.”

 He kept a binder filled with “my own notes on patient successes and thank-you letters from families,” he told Barnes. “It is amazing to look at, especially now after years of practice. When you see it all there, you really can’t help but be proud of the career you chose, the work you’re doing and the difference you are making in patients’ lives.”

Doing so helps build morale. It’s a strategy that works for physicians motivated to pull together their accolades. It also is used by physician leaders eager to inspire their staff members by sharing perceptions about how they work well together, as well as any patient feedback. Such methods are important, since physician burnout is common and well-documented.

 According to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2014, more than half the physicians surveyed reported having at least one symptom of burnout, up from 45 percent three years earlier. A 2017 Medscape study supported this trend, reporting that 51 percent of doctors surveyed say they experience burnout, up from 40 percent since 2013.

 The brag book approach is just one way leaders can help beat burnout. Other tactics to try:

  Use your company’s resources. Because burnout is so prevalent, many employers, medical centers and academic institutions might already have programs in place to help. In 2013, Tom Jenike, MD, helped launch the Novant Health Leadership Development Program, described as a “physician resiliency program,” by ACP Internist,  as a response to his burnout symptoms.

The program incorporates discussions, sessions and mentoring devoted to beating down burnout. As of the end of 2016, more than 600 doctors in the Novant system — just under half— had taken part in the program. Two years after the program launched, Jenike noted in ACP Internist, the doctors who were involved showed higher rates of engagement than those who hadn’t taken part: 89 percent vs. 62 percent.

 Meet with an executive coach. It can be helpful to work individually with a professional who has the experience and background dealing with physician burnout. Jenike wrote in Stat that he met with a physician networking coach who helped him develop and eventually co-found the Novant program.

Patrick Hudson, MD, of Coaching for Physicians, has worked with individual physicians and organizations on the skills needed to manage and prevent burnout “and restore the joy to medical practice” for nearly 10 years, he writes on his website. Doing so helps improve work-life balance, reduces turnover and encourages physician engagement. “It is rare for engaged physicians to become burned out,” he writes.

 Consider a career move. Although you’ve spent a lot of time and effort to get where you are in the middle of your career, maybe it’s time to move elsewhere. Moving from a clinical role into a leadership role can help you see medicine from a different perspective. How to do it? Consider who you know who has made this kind of move, and ask them how they did it.

Also, consider professional organizations that specialize in supporting and developing physician leaders. And check out career services offered by the American Association for Physician Leadership

 Cheryl Alkon is a freelance health care writer based in Massachusetts. 

Topics: Management

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