Warning lights

November 26, 2018

When we plow through our work despite our bodies and our minds flashing in alarm, our problems do not go away. Sometimes, they even get worse, like an engine running without oil.

Editor’s NotePhysicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for professionals to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The opinions are that of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Physicians Practice or UBM.

I drive a car with tires that have run-flat technology. There are sensors in the tires that detect when the pressure is too low-typically as a result of a flat tire or an air leak. When the weather gets colder, these sensors usually go off. Recently, one of the sensors went off, so I do what I normally do: I waited a couple of days to see if it would somehow fix itself. It was pretty annoying, actually, because the warning light was located where the temperature usually is displayed, so I couldn’t tell how cold it was outside.

Around the time I realized I would actually have to go to the gas station and check my tires, my gas light came on. The gas light superseded the tire light. I guess the car is savvy enough to know that tires don’t matter if you’re not moving. Even if I took the time to scroll past the warning lights, the gas light would just flash on again. So, I stopped and got gas and checked my tires and filled the deficient one with air. It was such a relief for the rest of the day to have that taken care of. No warning lights!

I need warning lights. I need one that tells me that I’m too tired and too emotional to read that email correctly and compose a reasonable response. A warning light informing me that I didn’t get enough sleep last night to have the conversation I’m about to have would be helpful. Sometimes, I need a flashing warning that my lack of exercise is making me irritable. Like a car, so many things are delicately balanced in my own human machine; any imbalance puts me at risk.

We do have warning lights, even if they are more figurative than literal. After a lifetime with yourself, you know how you work. You recognize when you’re tired or stressed or worried or overwhelmed. If you’re like me, it often feels easier to ignore those warnings and keep going, hoping that it will fix itself. Like my tire, this rarely works. Avoiding those signals that something is wrong can have disastrous effects. When we plow through our work despite our bodies and our minds flashing in alarm, our problems do not go away. Sometimes, they even get worse, like an engine running without oil. 

Conversely, when we stop and address what we need to, we can function well. Given the nature of our profession-one that requires attention, intelligence, pattern recognition, compassion, and sensitivity, it is particularly important that we pay attention to signs that we need to rest or refuel. 

Jennifer Frank, MD, is a family physician and physician leader in Northeastern Wisconsin and finds medicine still to be the best gig out there. Married with four kids, she is engaged in intensive study and pursuit of work-life balance.