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Edward Volpintesta: Empathy difficult for doctors with burnout

January 12, 2017

Five years ago the American Medical Association reported that about one-half of physicians experience burnout.

In simple terms, burnout can be described as physical and emotional exhaustion. It usually is brought on by prolonged stress. Physicians experience it as a loss of satisfaction and joy in their work. Experts say that burnout among physicians is common.

It is not surprising that articles discussing physician burnout appeared this December in two respected medical journals.

One in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings titled “Empathy in the Time of Burnout” focused on how physicians who experience burnout find it very difficult to be empathetic with their patients.

Empathy is truly feeling what patients feel and trying to communicate that to them. When physicians are hassled and distracted by insurance regulations and rushed to see too many patients in order to survive financially, it is almost impossible for most of them to be empathetic with their patients.

In addition, insurers require them to record lots of data including hospitalizations, infection rates, and tests to check on the control of diabetes.

To some degree, of course, this is good. But too much time is wasted inputting data on computers. This distracting, “busy work” takes time away that should be spent with patients.

The result is burnout. But I think “soul-weary” is a better term to describe the loss of the idealism that drew doctors to medicine in the first place.

The second article, “Healing Physicians,” appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It dealt with the more serious effects of physician burnout including depression. It mentioned that physicians often do not seek help for fears it may affect their medical licenses or their malpractice insurance.

Unfortunately, the number of physicians that die by suicide yearly (400) is higher than in other professions.

Burnout is not limited to physicians in practice. Medical students and residents also suffer and experience anxiety and depression. Hospitals and medical schools, aware of the problems are making efforts to offer help when needed.

I asked a health care administrator and a physician for their opinions on burnout.

The executive suggested that doctors suffer from burnout because there aren’t enough of them.

What is needed is a new type of “general practitioner,” he said, and suggested that by combining the best skills of a nurse practitioner, a primary care doctor, and a physician, this new type of “general practitioner” would make the workforce larger, reduce the strain all around and would lessen burnout.

The doctor said that although he is expected to act empathetically toward his patients, he doesn’t get any in return; and that about one-half of his work effort is wasted on meaningless bureaucratic requirements.

He added that he doesn’t have enough time off to “recharge his battery” and regrets that he misses out on many family activities.

Burnout is real and it is good that medical schools and hospitals are aware of burnout and are working to lessen it.

For science may be the body of medicine, but empathy is its soul.

Edward Volpintesta is a doctor with an office in Bethel.