Reviving the Spark: How Physicians Can Renew Their Joy in Medicine

December 22, 2013
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doctor burnoutWhen you decided to enter the medical field, you likely had the notion that the work would always be meaningful and fulfilling. But even with a love for medicine and a passionate desire to use your expertise to help people, certain circumstances can dampen your spirits and make each shift feel like drudgery.

doctor burnoutWhen you decided to enter the medical field, you likely had the notion that the work would always be meaningful and fulfilling. But even with a love for medicine and a passionate desire to use your expertise to help people, certain circumstances can dampen your spirits and make each shift feel like drudgery.

However, there’s no reason to resign yourself to a career that’s demanding yet unrewarding. If you address your situation and make some changes, you can find joy in your work again.

Facing Burnout

Every job has its downsides, and being a physician is no different. Doctors frequently run into problems with bureaucracy and insurance companies, as well as limitations at various locations. All of these problems can contribute to burnout, but different factors bother people in different ways and to different degrees.

I once worked with an orthopedic surgeon who left the Army Reserve Medical Corps (ARMC) for the civilian sector. In his new setting, he struggled to give his patients the care he felt they needed. Insurance companies had strong jurisdiction over treatments and tests, and he worked in a hospital where the technology and practices were outdated. After five years, he was worn out from the struggle and returned to the ARMC. It was a better fit for him and allowed him the freedom to make decisions he valued.

Anyone can get frustrated and lose passion while working in the wrong setting. Typically, the most important factor for physicians is the quality of care you’re able to offer, and doctors who are distracted or unhappy aren’t able to offer their best. Patients can tell when doctors are discontented, and it worries them. Medicine is complex; they need physicians they can trust and doctors who can put them at ease in tough situations. It’s hard to focus on the patients’ needs when you’re dealing with your own frustrations. 

Getting Out of a Slump

What actions can be taken to find satisfaction in your job again? These steps can help you assess your situation and make changes where they’re needed:

Imagine your ideal setting: Then, contrast it with your current one. What kind of pace do you like? What sort of hours? What trauma level? Do you want a hospital with more or fewer beds? Do you want something more challenging, or do you want to slow things down? Are you interested in taking on volunteer or part-time work? Clarify your top priorities, and focus your attention on a small number of things you want to change. These will likely change as your life circumstances do.

Evaluate your personal life: Does your community suit your family’s needs? Your job plays a big role in the lives of each family member; you want to ensure it’s making a positive impact, rather than a negative one. Many physicians take the highest-paying job right out of residency but later find that their spouses want to be closer to family once they have kids. It’s important to weigh the significance of personal desires against professional ones and strike a good balance.

Take vacations and frequent breaks: This is directly related to finding personal balance, and it’s entirely your responsibility. Physicians are notorious for being workaholics, but if you don’t know how to walk away from the office and trust your colleagues, you’re compromising your value at both work and home. You need to be fully present for both, and overdoing one can hurt the other.

Shake things up: Sometimes, you don’t need an entirely new job — you just need a change of pace. This is especially true for individuals who struggle with feeling challenged or appreciated. If you are in primary care, see if you can work a shift in the ER weekly or monthly. Seek out new ways to use your skills to help people, like volunteering with organizations that offer services to people without healthcare. Get out of your routine and experience something new.

If you’ve lost your spark, there’s very little chance of it returning on its own. But you don’t have to sit and wait for it to find you. Remember what made you love medicine in the first place, and chase after the things that can bring you back to that point. Change can be difficult, but it’s worth a little discomfort to rediscover the joy in your work.

(doctor burnout / shutterstock)

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