Phone calls in the middle of the night and on weekends eventually overwhelmed Dr. Barbara Morris, a geriatrician who served five years as medical director of a retirement community in Colorado.
It wasn't that the calls were inappropriate. She simply couldn't endure responding to the constant barrage, and the health system where she worked had no plans to add more staff.
“I actually loved that job,” Morris recalled. “But you hit your wall. And you realize you can't continue if you're not going to get the resources that you need.” About four years ago, she started looking for a new job, found one and quit.
Why Morris hit her wall is obvious to her in retrospect: She was burned out. That experience is not unique among physicians. And as awareness grows about burnout and its destructive consequences for doctors and patients, ideas to address the problem have proliferated. But no organization has arrived at a set of sustainable solutions.
Healthcare systems, practices and medical schools are deploying an array of tactics to help physicians cope with the unique stress of modern medicine. Some programs offer regular moments of reflection, connection with other doctors or other sources of catharsis.
Healthcare leaders maintain that using other methods to engage physicians will mitigate the main drivers of burnout—electronic health records and multiplying reporting requirements—in a more systematic fashion.
“We have to, in this profession, find a balance,” Morris said. “There are ongoing struggles that we don't have answers to.”
Such struggles threaten doctors and patients alike. Burned-out doctors don't collaborate as well with colleagues and they make more mistakes, which can harm patients. Sometimes, they exit the profession altogether, dealing a blow to an industry with a looming shortage of nearly 95,000 physicians in the next decade.