Balancing Medical Work-Life Issues Comes at a Price

August 12, 2011

As healthcare providers, the notion of disconnecting from work seems completely strange, but a sign that our profession and culture is changing.

I finally made it to a meaningful vacation, disconnected from work and electronic demands as much as possible. I work with a surgeon in a burn unit that also handles plastic and reconstructive surgery. My current position is a pressure cooker and also the best job I have ever had. For all the stresses of the job, it provides me with a sense of accomplishment and reassures me that I’m making a difference in the world.

As healthcare providers, the notion of disconnecting from work seems completely strange, but a sign that our profession and culture is changing.

I graduated from the Stanford University Medical Center Physician Assistant Program 30 years ago, and developed my medical work ethic at a time when you were expected to give medicine priority over everything you did in life. Medicine has never been an “8-to-5 job” for me, and I suspect that this is true for most people in medicine. The surgeons with whom I work, while young, share my philosophy in this area. Since then, a lot has changed.

I served as a PA leader and attended the AMA House of Delegates when the resident physician work week was debated. I'm old school in a lot of ways, but those discussions demonstrated a shift in the fundamental environment regarding what physicians and other healthcare providers expect from their careers.

Predictable schedules and limited on-call hours used to be considered a gender issue. Now it is a generational issue, as young physicians and PAs have much different expectations of their work–life balance. There is much more pressure to balance work with family and outside demands, and this drives the decisions that many healthcare providers make as to specialty and organizational practice.

With this shift and desire for balance, comes a cost for us all. That primacy of medical duty placed us all apart from others in our society.

Rewards came from sacrifice, including a level of respect from our patients as we all endeavored to help and heal them. As the pendulum swings towards more life balance for physicians, PAs, and other providers, we have to recognize that this creates a barrier and a distance from our patients that we have to acknowledge is there, and work to overcome. We are all human, after all.

It gave me a lot to ponder as I vacationed, trying to recharge my batteries before heading back to the 24/7 pressure cooker of the burn unit. I believe the expectations of physicians and others who provide direct patient care has been unreasonable to a degree. And, I think that we would all agree that everyone needs a life outside of medicine to balance and calibrate their life in medicine.

It makes us better clinicians, and human beings. We need to understand the shift in our culture, adapt to it and understand the cost-benefit equation to a healthy work-life balance when it comes to balancing our careers with our personal lives. Right now, I will continue to work and play hard.

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This blog was provided in partnership with the American Academy of Physician Assistants. For more information, visit www.aapa.org.