Fight Clinician Burnout with Global Health Work

March 12, 2018

Some physicians find relief from burnout by getting involved in humanitarian work.

Studies say one of the reasons for burnout most often cited by physicians is they feel like a cog in a wheel. Most physicians choose medicine as a career because they want to help people. Then somewhere along the way a job that was all about service becomes a job all about . . . paperwork, administration, mastering diagnosis codes - in other words, being a cog in a wheel. Regulations and EHR systems are intended to improve patient care-and many of them do. But in a world where physicians spend more time face-to-face with computer screens than with patients, many doctors are losing the joy of practicing medicine.

Some doctors have found a way to get that joy back. The trick is reconnecting with the reason you went into medicine in the first place. And the best way to do that may be by getting out of the office for a bit-even out of the country.

According to Jennifer Goedken, MD, assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology at Emory University School of Medicine, getting involved in global health or other service projects is one of the best ways to fight burnout. Goedken works with the Emory Global Health Institute and has travelled to Ethiopia to address the high mortality rate of women there who give birth at home. “You’re still practicing medicine, but it’s no longer draining you; it’s feeding you.”

Hughes Melton, MD, family medicine doctor, agrees. Melton practiced family medicine in Virginia for twelve years, then spent several years as a CMO of a local health system. He is now Chief Deputy Commissioner with the Virginia Department of Health. Over the years Melton has dealt with many changes in American medicine. But it was his regular two-week trips to El Salvador each summer and fall for many years that kept him energized and in love with his work. “You can make a very obvious, tangible difference in the lives of the people you are there to help,” says Melton. “At home we can’t always see it, or we miss it.”

Mary Jo Welker, MD, a family medicine physician with the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, is also an old hand at global health service. “You don’t have all the bureaucracy that you have at home,” she says. “Many people find this liberating. There are problems, such as a lack of resources, but it’s a different set of problems."

You don’t have to leave the country, or even your hometown to get these benefits, however. “There’s plenty of work that needs to be done here,” says Goedken. Community health centers often have a need for help as do recent immigrants. “Whether you do it abroad or in your backyard, the important thing is to find a way to reconnect with the joy in medicine,” says Goedken. 

When you get home, says Melton, you are “energized and thankful, and in much better shape for dealing with the stresses of your normal practice.” If you can get away from your practice for as little as a week, a stint volunteering in global health work or a local service opportunity might be the prescription you need.