5 Ways to Avoid Physician Burnout

April 10, 2016

Are you feeling burned out? It's important to not let the monotony of the job get to you, here are some tips to recharge your batteries.

No matter what specialty you choose, eventually work can become repetitive.  As a physician, you tend to see patients with the same story or diagnosis, over and over again.  After years of patient care, there are very few clinical stories that surprise us or that we haven’t heard before.  This is what happens after decades of practice and being the grand and wise older physician.

Let's just face it: This can get pretty boring!

But by this point, we have a mortgage, kids in college, maybe we have just finished paying off our student loans and we don’t have enough saved for retirement.  We stay on the hamster wheel because the work is easy and the money is good.  But we dream of escape, which just makes our daily work even more mundane and tedious.

Burnout is a terrible waste of a great mind.  So what can you do to prevent it or repair professional exhaustion if you already have it?

Ask yourself, why did you go into medicine in the first place? Seriously re-examine your motives and reconnect with them. 

• If you went into medicine because you wanted to help others, it may a good idea for you to volunteer at a free clinic or mobile health van.  Despite improved access to healthcare, there are still so many people that are underserved and desperately need our help.

• If you chose medicine because of your inner “science nerd”, then maybe you need add some research to your career.  There are many types of clinical research you can do even in your private practice. 

• If your motive was from a personal experience, re-immersing yourself in that experience could help you find a new focus for your medical career.

Here are a few ways to avoid burnout:

1. Perhaps you need to take a break and recharge yourself?

This may be a good time to take a sabbatical and re-examine the direction of your life. The sky is the limit as to what you choose. Go to Italy for two months to learn Italian. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Learn to cook at a top-notch cooking school. Join an international health organization to practice medicine in a needed location.  The main point is to take an extended vacation where you focus on something other than your normal daily routine.

It is entirely possible that after this time off, you may realize that you need to switch to a nonclinical career. This is not the end of the world, and in fact may just make you happy for the next part of your life!

2. Find a new direction within your specialty can help keep you engaged. I have retooled myself multiple times.  I am a general pediatrician but have varied my clinical focus over the years from breastfeeding support, pediatric obesity, and nutrition.  I have even dabbled in administrative and financial management of medical practices. I am currently changing my direction again to focus more on integrative and functional pediatric medicine.

3. If you are getting frustrated with your chronic patients continuing to not improve, especially if they are not following your advice, perhaps you should think about switching to a concierge practice model.  When people pay a small amount of copay, then your advice is worth a small amount.  If they pay for your knowledge up front and then submit to their insurance coverage, your knowledge will have a higher value.  It seems counterintuitive, but this is a well-known theory in the retail world: if it’s free, it ain’t worth nothin’!

4. As physicians, we are in a unique position.  Our education and work experience are excellent criteria for many types of non-clinical jobs that will be suited to our skills.  There are resources online that can describe some of these alternatives. It is worth looking at some options, even if you decide to not pursue this alternative.

5. Lastly, talk to someone.  I would highly advise chatting with a physician career coach.  These professional advisors are a wealth of knowledge with terrific contacts.  Even if you continue in clinical medicine, they can help you find alternatives or additions to keep you involved and interested and help prevent burnout.