Fight Physician Burnout With Compassion

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I believe compassion is one of the most important qualities doctors can share with their patients.

An honor I’m most proud of is being selected for the past three years as one of the Most Compassionate Doctors of the Year, according to annual patient surveys.

I think I’ve just been lucky, as I know many doctors who seem way more compassionate than me.

I don’t believe it’s enough to simply recognize that compassion has its place in our world. It must be shared, demonstrated, with everyone we meet. We must embrace it with open arms and say, “Hello, old friend. Hang out with me for awhile.”

In Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, embracing compassion is one of the prescriptions I describe.

While compassion is a crucial quality for doctors to share, I believe it can get you into trouble. It can blur the line between doctor-patient, doctor-nurse, doctor-technician. Sometimes that’s a good thing; you know when it’s not. ‘Nuff said.

Of course, I’m talking about compassion in the best sense. The kind of compassion that helps you push back your fatigue, your hunger, and your aches when you need to get the job done. The kind that brings you up short when you have a visceral reaction to your patient’s bad pathology report.

This kind of compassion makes us more human and more approachable to the patients who trust us with their healthcare.

In our world of hurry-up, push forward, and keep a-going, compassion doesn’t always come easy–especially for busy doctors with more to-do’s on their lists than time in a day.

I’m often asked what’s the best way to bring out compassion on those days when you’re not sure you have any left to give. Here are some ideas that have helped me:

  1. Go back to basics. Treat each patient like family–not like your aggravating Uncle Ned, but like your sweet Aunt Agnes. Reach deep.
  2. Stop and breathe. As you wash your hands at the sink in between patients, picture washing away any negative energy from the previous patient and sudsing in the positive energy for the next patient. A clean slate every time. Aaaaah.
  3. Listen.  Tweetable: “Listen to what your patient says in between the lines.” @StarlaFitchMD  We all are rushed, no doubt. But in thirty seconds, you may hear something special. It may be the key to your patient’s problem (could that new puppy be causing allergies?) or it may unlock the listlessness you sense (a granddaughter just got diagnosed with diabetes at the age of seven). If you sense any odd reactions, remember it’s not always about you.
  4. Pass the compassion all around. Don’t save it for your family or a few select patients. Until you’ve walked in your patient’s shoes, you don’t know what they’re truly going through. Spread that compassion all around, like warm butter on biscuits. Yum.

How do YOU bring out compassion with every patient? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

CATEGORIES: Blog on September 15, 2014 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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