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Burnout in Medicine: How Can We Nurture Ourselves While Caring for Patients?

By OnlineMedEd October 25, 2019

For healthcare professionals across all levels, work is more than a career—it’s a calling. But even turning your passions into your life’s work can take a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being—and it could have detrimental impacts on your life, as well as the patients you serve. Ultimately, it can lead to burnout.

A study of 7,000 physicians found that 41% of them had at least one symptom of burnout that went beyond disorganization or not functioning well under pressure. More than 400 physicians commit suicide each year, while a study from the Journal of Academic Medicine found that nearly 10% of medical students in their final year said they were having suicidal thoughts. 

In its purest form, burnout is defined as the state of exhaustion caused by ongoing excessive stress. And while a high level of stress may seem like par for the course in the medical field, it does not make anyone immune from its effects. 


Burnout in Medicine Has Dire Consequences 

Burnout can occur in any field or career, but the medical field tends to take the lion’s share. Studies have shown that physicians are twice as likely to commit suicide than non-physicians, with suicide accounting for 26% of deaths in physicians ages 25-39.

Nurses and physician assistants also experience a high level of job-related stress that can lead to burnout. In many cases, promising medical students may find that dealing with clinical rotations, studying, and testing is too much for their mental health. 

For many medical professionals, the combination of mounting clerical work, too little time to see patients, and high levels of debt for school and ongoing education can all contribute to a decrease in job satisfaction.

A woman in a chair holding her head

You go to med school to treat patients and make a difference; not handle paperwork and politics. But the reality is that paperwork is an unavoidable part of the job, along with data entry, dealing with metrics, and appeasing higher-ups rather than fully engaging in the patient experience. Med students get a taste of this during clinicals and quickly realize that a career in medicine is not just about practicing medicine.

For many, this change in perception is a wake-up call. Some students may wonder whether a medical career is right for them. Others may continue on their path while mentally adjusting to the idea that their future career will be different than what they envisioned, which can create new levels of stress and concern.

But while many people think of burnout as a personal issue, its effects when practicing medicine go beyond how a person thinks or feels. 

Medical professionals who suffer from burnout may be more prone to errors, which can result in misdiagnosis, a lower level of care, and lower patient satisfaction. 

“[Medical professionals] need to be in tune with their patients, asking, listening, and connecting the dots,” said Paul Griner, MD, author of The Power of Patient Stories: Learning Moments in Medicine and professor emeritus at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) School of Medicine and Dentistry. “They can’t do that effectively if they’re burned out.”


Recognizing the Signs of Burnout

Burnout doesn’t occur overnight, but rather over time as pressure and stress mount. There are several signs and symptoms along the way, but if these signs are left unaddressed, burnout can seemingly sneak up on you.

The first step in combating burnout (or preventing it altogether) is to recognize the symptoms as they occur, including the following:

Physical Symptoms

  • Lower energy level than normal

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Lower immunity

  • Frequent aches and pains, such as headaches, back pain, or neck pain

  • Noticeable changes in appetite

Mental and Emotional Symptoms

  • Loss of motivation

  • Lower self-esteem or confidence

  • Detachment

  • Increased cynicism

  • Higher level of self-doubt

  • Emotional or mental exhaustion

  • Lack of personalized interactions with patients

  • Not feeling accomplished

Behavioral Clues

  • Withdrawing from social engagements

  • Calling in or coming in late to class or work

  • Procrastination

  • Taking out your anger or frustrations on others


How to Take Control of Burnout Before It Controls You

Though burnout in the medical field is often considered something that occurs in highly trained professionals, it can also impact med students. Whether you’re studying to be a nurse, a physician assistant, or a physician, the journey to earning your credentials isn’t for the faint of heart. 

As a med student, you should start to understand the impacts of burnout and start to take action to mitigate its effects now and in the future. Here are a few actionable tips to put into motion:

Set Boundaries

It’s not easy to learn how to say ‘no,’ but it is essential for your physical, mental, and emotional health. The more you overextend yourself, the thinner you are stretched, and you may be unable to give any one thing the attention it deserves. Set personal boundaries, stick to them, and do not feel guilty for not wanting to do more.

Increase Suicide Awareness

Given the number of final-year medical students and physicians that have suicidal thoughts or commit suicide, it is important to understand the signs of a suicidal person. If working in the medical field is stressful to the point of causing suicidal thoughts, you may need to take some time off to rethink your career path.

Work on Healthy Habits Now

Healthy habits start during med school. Making it a habit to eat nutritious foods, get enough sleep, and work exercise into your daily routine can help you better prioritize these things when you transition into the medical field full-time. 

Take Time Off

Don’t wait until you burn out from studying to take a break. Even with a rigorous clinicals schedule, you should still make an effort to leave the books behind and go see a movie, take a walk, or go out with friends. 

Study Smarter, Not Harder

There’s no shortage of studying you will have to do to achieve your medical career goals. But while there is no getting around homework, you can find ways to make the most of your time. Studying smarter, not harder, is one way to avoid burnout, and OnlineMedEd can help. 


Deep dives into real issues impacting medical education, brought to you by OnlineMedEd.


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