This was supposed to be a post about positive psychology and learned optimism. I normally mull over my posts all week and write them on Fridays but on Thursday night, I went to a lecture on burnout aimed at new medical students and I was uncomfortable with some of what I heard so I was forced to use my writing time for that instead. (forced by no one but myself, but you know how sometimes you feel strongly about things and so you can’t focus on anything else? That kind of forced. Compelled, I guess, is more accurate.)
Although I enjoy public speaking, writing and blogging on my own terms, I am not very comfortable in the limelight of op-ed. Some people are incredibly good at it. You know: the witty yet caustic artfully crafted letters to the editor, the inflamed yet articulate caller on the radio phone-in show. Neither of those are within my comfort zone (or talent zone). In fact, my last brush with op-ed fame was about 6 years ago. It was a slow news week in the middle of July and a local print journalist became interested in my opinions related to playground safety (a long, boring story). The day after my piece was published, my friend tried to buy all the newspapers in our neighbourhood so I wouldn’t read the incendiary letters to the editor mocking me and the position I had taken on this issue…Not a big deal, but not very comfortable either.
When it comes to public debate, I am more of a muller – when I experience something that troubles or upsets me, it often happens to me in slow motion, and I almost always need time to reflect and chew my ideas over before making a point or jumping into an argument. That does not make me a very strong debater, sadly, (although I am learning over time at the feet of a master of debate, my partner, who win arguments even on topics he knows nothing about! It’s sometimes enraging but also kind of sexy).
But here goes nothing. My op-ed piece.
Dr Patch Adams: A muddled message about burnout
On Thursday night I attended (along with hundreds of young medical students) Dr Patch Adams’ presentation “The Joy of Caring” which was held at the Biosciences complex on Queen’s Campus, organised by the Aesculapian Medical Undergraduate Society. We were invited to hear “an inspirational talk including the exploration of burnout prevention for caregivers, and the power of care, not only in the patient’s life, but also in the caregiver’s life.”
As a compassion fatigue specialist and someone who devotes nearly all of my time to providing education on burnout to health care professionals, I was very interested to hear Dr Adams’ thoughts on this topic.
I was moved and rather awed by Dr Adams’ total devotion to his life’s goal (which is to offer free medical care to all), and the love and acceptance that he conveys towards his patients across the globe, particularly the most neglected members of society.
However, as I heard Dr Adams speak, I grew increasingly uneasy about one aspect of his message.
Throughout his talk, Dr Adams described his routine of working from 7am to 3am daily and having rarely, if ever, taken a day off work in his many years as a physician and therapeutic clown. He also spoke of a twelve year period where he and other physicians lived with their children and spouses in a six bedroom house which they ran as a free hospital, co-habiting with “5 and sometimes 50 patients at one time, sharing bathrooms, living rooms and bedrooms. Having no privacy whatsoever.” Although he was not advocating that we all do the same, I wondered how his lifestyle was coming across to medical students around me – I wondered whether this was seen by some of them as something to aspire to, a gold standard of self-sacrifice – the sign of a truly dedicated doctor.
Then, I was startled by Dr Adams’ main message which was that, in his opinion, “There is no such thing as physician burnout when you offer [the kind of medical care he offers]. Burnout is not possible when you care.” I do agree with Dr Adams that it is often the system that burns us out rather than the patients themselves: the increasing volume of work, insufficient staffing, inadequate referral resources, etc.
But to state that “burnout does not occur when you care” is simply not true.
Based on very strong research (from 1995 onwards, see Figley, Stamm, Saakvitne and many others) the medical and other health care professions are recognising that there are serious problems with burnout that are intrinsic to helping others. It is in fact well established that there are serious consequences to overwork both to patients and physicians. We now know that working with patients can lead to the serious effects of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout. Burnout is a term that has been widely used to describe the physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. Compassion Fatigue refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate due to the pace, volume or nature of the patient work they do. Vicarious Trauma has been used to describe the profound shift that workers experience in their world view when they work with patients who have experienced trauma. Helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and possibly damaged by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material. Vicarious Trauma occurs when the stories we hear from our patients transfer onto us in a way where we are secondarily traumatized and have difficulty ridding ourselves of the images and experiences they have shared with us. These problems can degenerate into clinical depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and lead to alcoholism, suicidality and serious clinical errors, to name a few.
The good news is that there are simple and effective strategies that can protect us and help to mitigate these effects. We can provide care without suffering, and the answer is certainly not to deny or blame ourselves for experiencing burnout.
My concern is that Dr Adams’ take home message to medical students Thursday night was that if you do not devote every waking hour of your life to patient care, you are a failure and possibly also a shallow, selfish, materialistic human being. Dr Adams may be thriving with his own pace of life and is clearly accomplishing wonderful things in the world. But I believe that for the rest of us mere mortals the best way to provide care to others is to first and foremost start within ourselves: Dr Charles Figley, the highly respected founding father of compassion fatigue says it best: “First, do no harm to yourself in the line of duty when helping/treating others. Second, attend to your physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs as a way of ensuring high quality services to those who look to you for support as a human being. ” (Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, Standards of Self Care Guidelines.)
This isn’t a zero sum game: you do not take away from others by caring for yourself – it is, in fact, quite the opposite. We are far more effective caregivers if we have our own emotional house in order.