Opinions

OPINION: Taking care of the physicians that take care of us

Stock - Hospital corridor and doctor as a blurred defocused background

Years of data tell us that physicians have one of the highest rates of suicide, even higher than the military. Approximately 300 physicians die by suicide each year, twice the national average. Medical students experience an estimated 15-30% higher rate of depression than the general population. Despite these saddening statistics, healthcare workers’ mental health is largely ignored. It’s long past time to change the culture of medicine to support physicians and recognize the humanity of medicine.

We often forget that our healthcare providers are humans. We ask physicians to be superhuman, expecting them to give up sick days, work insanely long hours, and survive strenuous academic training that focuses on everything but their own humanity. Burnout is not the failure of a person, but a failure of a system. The predominant system in U.S. medicine diminishes the humanity of physicians and leaves them without support.

As the chief medical officer for the state of Alaska, I have been able to help structurally change our support systems for students. Alaska WWAMI, part of the University of Washington School of Medicine’s cooperative five-state medical school, has done a particularly good job of creating this kind of support system. Many WWAMI students have fulfilling lives outside of their studies. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but unfortunately, it is in the medical profession.

Traditional residency programs require students to reside within the hospital. The time commitments make it practically impossible for students to have a life outside of their studies, leading to 45% of resident physicians experiencing burnout. This perpetuates a perception that physicians should work themselves to the point of exhaustion or even suicide.

[The pandemic didn’t cause Alaska’s doctor deficit, but it made the situation worse]

Becoming a physician is often thought of as a calling. While I love this idea and feel similarly, it often implies the need to commit whole lives to the profession. I’ve found that to commit my whole self to my profession, I have to make sure that I wholly commit to myself as well. That includes my family, my sleep, my diet, my exercise, and my mental health. Caring for others is impossibly difficult when there is no time or space to care for yourself.

My hope is that we can change the culture of medicine so we can support the whole patient and the whole person providing care. By being well ourselves, we have the physical energy, passion, mental capacity and compassion needed to serve our patients. Programs like WWAMI aid this effort by working to change the healthcare education system, improving expectations for future generations of physicians.

[Surgeon general warns of ‘crisis’ level health care burnout]

Though May is Mental Health Awareness Month, this is an ongoing conversation and will involve medical educators, policymakers, practitioners and students. We are stronger when we partner with other programs and institutions to learn from one another and create systems of support that uplift current and future physicians.

Dr. Anne Zink is the chief medical officer for Alaska, overseeing the state’s public health.

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