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Physician Burnout:
What Can We Do to Help

by Cori Ritchey

 

Most doctors feel that the health of their patients relies solely on them. When the patient struggles to recover and treatment options are not working, doctors can experience much anguish feeling that they are responsible. This is a heavy burden to bear.

 

There is a medical crisis in the country right now. You may have heard about it. It is known as physician burnout, and the impact on patients is great. Due to stress, doctors are more prone to making medical mistakes and inaccurate diagnoses. The mental and physical exhaustion caused by these overwhelming environments can have an adverse effect on patient care. Doctors with clouded minds are more likely to make mistakes which can hold hefty ramifications. At the same time, some doctors are simply deciding to retire early and leave medicine altogether.

 

What is Physician Burnout?

Physician burnout is defined as a physical and mental exhaustion that transpires from constant presence of stress. Elements of burnout include insomnia, depersonalization, and depleting self esteem. These symptoms often link to cases of depression and anxiety.

 

When help is not sought, the stress becomes too much for many doctors. Physicians have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. According to the National Library of Medicine, male doctors experience suicide rates as much as 40% higher than the general population. In female doctors, an astounding 130% higher rate.

 

These numbers speak for themselves, and will not be getting better any time soon given the current pandemic-ailing the world. Overcrowded emergency rooms, the high demand and low supply of ventilators, and a scarcity of personal protective equipment are all medical nightmares that have plastered the nightly news since March of 2020.

 

It is easy to see how doctors feel overwhelmed given the nature of their job. Many of the causes, however, are systemic and less noticed by the general public.

 

The ever-changing healthcare system pressures doctors into a strict patient schedule, often not allowing them ample time to evaluate, treat, and follow up with their patients. In a study done by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, called Minimizing Error, Maximizing Outcome, more than half of physicians polled reported experiencing time pressures when conducting physical examinations. The pressure to see a certain amount of patients in one day can overwhelm physicians. This time crunch causes doctors to feel a lack of autonomy - knowing they are trained to help people, but understanding that they have no power to demand the time and resources needed to do so properly. Some say it is the fault of the healthcare systems who employ the doctors, where how many patients are seen in a day is more important than quality of care.

 

Along with the time pressure to see a steady load of patients comes the congruent pressure to write adequate patient notes. The introduction of the electronic patient record since 1972 has actually lengthened the already tedious process. In fact, specialty doctors who spend more time on average documenting have a higher rate of burnout. For example, an emergency room doctor is more likely to feel burnout than a brain surgeon. Modern developments come often, constantly changing the patient note process. Doctors do not have the time to normalize their patient note routine before another advancement comes along and another step is added to the process.

 

The same holds true when considering the role of changes in medical technology. While most innovations are ultimately good, they take time and training in order to learn how to use the new device or software package. With new processes, medical tools, medications, and treatments rolling out on a consistent basis, doctors are constantly in the classroom along with their full time jobs.

 

So, as patients, what can we do?

The first, and arguably most important piece, you have already done by getting the bottom of this article. Awareness is the first step to advocacy. Patients must first understand the adversity doctors encounter to be able to provide sympathy and support.

 

The second step is actually more beneficial to the patient than to the doctor. Set yourself up for health. Educate on how to take care of your body and mind. Exercise, nutrition, and wellness set us up for success. The healthier our daily acts, the stronger our body can fight against ailments awaiting us in the future. The biggest assistance we can give those who care for us is to care for ourselves.

 

Healthy habits, however, can’t always save us. When you do have to go to see your doctor, be kind. Patience is a virtue - be polite when your primary care physician might be running late for your appointment. You may be their 12th patient that’s been squeezed into their schedule. More often than not, doctors do not have control over their workload. Do not take it personally if they seem short with you, they are just trying to work efficiently.

 

Before you arrive at your appointment, make a list of your concerns and questions to allow your doctors to work as efficiently as possible. Forgetting something and having to call back later for clarification adds to their workload. Do your best to come prepared.

 

Social support is the biggest driver in helping our doctors. Take care of your friends and family in the medical field. Check up on them - they’re used to doing the checking up on, and thus are less likely to ask for help.

 

And always remember - physicians are human too. When you visit your doctor, ask how they are doing and thank your doctor at the end of your appointment. Let them know how much you appreciate their work. They have dedicated their life to keeping you healthy. We, as patients, can make a big difference to help our healthcare providers remain motivated to stay in medicine by letting them know we care.

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Cori Ritchey is a Washington D.C. native newly transplanted to the Boston area, expected to graduate from Emerson College in 2022 with a Masters in Journalism. She is a graduate of  Penn State University with a bachelors of science in Kinesiology. Through her experience working on the frontlines of health care, Lead by a love for reading, writing, and public speaking, Cori became a health and science reporter to shed light on these issues.

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A Patient’s Guide to Cardiology

By Cori Ritchey

 

In honor of February being American Heart Month, we will be highlighting the specialty of cardiology: what it is, why you may need it, and how you can take care of your own cardiovascular health.

 

Your heart is designed to pump the much needed blood to all of your organs, nerves, muscles, and just about everything that keeps you going. It’s health and efficiency is incredibly important to the operation of the rest of your body.

 

What is Cardiology?

Cardiology, as created by the Greek word “cardia”, meaning “heart”, and the suffix “logy”, meaning “study of”, is the branch of medicine that studies abnormalities of the heart.

 

There are two doctors typically associated with cardiology. A cardiologist deals with diagnosing and prescribing treatment for diseases and disorders of the heart. A cardiac surgeon performs surgery on the heart.

 

To understand different diseases of the heart, we have to first understand what the cardiovascular system does.

 

The main purpose of the cardiovascular system is to carry the necessary nutrients to our cells through the blood. The system is made up of the heart, the arteries, and the veins. The heart creates the pressure to keep blood pumping through our arteries and veins to enable it to travel. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the average adult heart beats around 100,000 times per day, pumping up to a gallon and a half of blood through the body.

 

The veins and arteries create the pathways for our blood to move it around the body. The arteries carry blood that has the necessary oxygen nutrient attached, and the veins carry the blood whose oxygen has already been utilized back to the lungs to get some more. There are so many veins and arteries around the body that if you were to stretch them out and line them up, it would measure about 100,000 miles long for an average adult, according to the Franklin Institute. This is almost 4 trips around the Earth.

 

Our cardiology system is vast, which unfortunately causes a lot of room for error. Here are a few different specialists of cardiology.

 

Clinical Cardiologist:

The most common specialist is a clinical cardiologist. These doctors specialize in evaluating your heart-related problems, and may be the ones sending you to one of the other specialists to treat whatever your specific condition may require. Your primary care doctor may send you to a cardiologist if you develop an irregular heart beat, have a heart attack, or symptoms of angina.

 

Some clinical cardiologists specialize in preventive care. You may be told to see one of these doctors if your family has a long history of heart disease, heart failure, or stroke, especially at a young age. These doctors will work with you to come up with a plan to decrease your risk through lifestyle changes.

 

Congenital Cardiologist:

Congenital, meaning “present from birth”, refers to abnormalities that were established during development. These doctors deal mostly with babies and children, when they are born with some kind of heart defect, meaning the heart did not develop properly and thus can not operate the way it should. Congenital heart defects are one of the most common birth defects according to the Center for Disease Control. They are seen in about 1% of births a year.

 

Cardiac Surgeon:

These doctors come into play when non-invasive treatments do not suffice. Oftentimes, cardiac surgeons will correct deformities in the heart, often congenital, valve replacements, and even heart transplants in the worst of scenarios.

 

Electrophysiologist:

Electrophysiologists deal with the electrical conduction of the heart. Electrical signals from the brain tell the heart when to contract, and when these signals fall out of rhythm, the body feels it. These are the doctors you will see if your heart beats too fast, too slow, or abnormally. They are able to help get these signals back on track, often with the help of electrical devices like a pacemaker.

 

Cardio-oncologist:

Oncology is the treatment of cancer in the body. Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can oftentimes mess with the cardiovascular system. These doctors specialize in understanding the complicated nature of treating heart problems in patients undergoing cancer treatments.

 

How You Can Help Your Heart

Cardiovascular health starts with a healthy lifestyle. Diet and exercise can play a major part in your heart health, and can prevent you from having to see one of these specialists in the future. Here are a few tips on how to focus on your heart health this month, and every month.

 

1. Work on getting your exercise in. Keeping our blood flowing and our heart working is the best way to improve our cardiovascular health. Staying active can help regulate your weight. While the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, even making small changes can improve your condition a ton if you don’t have time to schedule out longer bouts of exercise. Next time you take the subway to work, stand instead of sitting on the ride. Walk your dog one extra block farther, or take the stairs instead of the elevator next time. Trivial things like this can make a lasting impact on your future heart health.

2. Focus on eating a little bit healthier this month. Minimize your sugar and salt intake, and focus on whole grains and lean proteins. Try to fit in one fresh vegetable for dinner tonight. Add a piece of fruit to your breakfast tomorrow morning. Again, small changes make all the difference.

3. Try to make this month the month you quit smoking. This doesn’t only include cigarettes, but also vaping and other tobacco products such as chew. Eliminating this habit could not only save you some money, but could also save your life.

 February 2022   Page 5