How Perfection Can Lead to Physician Burnout

Whenever I talk with groups of medical professionals about job frustration and burnout, there’s a theme that shows up that’s hard to ignore. I call it “The Pain of Perfection.”

Most of us pursued careers in medicine to help others. And if we’re honest, we must admit that we have Type-A tendencies infused in our bloodstream.

Can I see a show of hands, please?

That part of us, the one that strives for perfection in every endeavor, is what makes us excellent surgeons, pathologists, family practice doctors, or radiologists.

We constantly strive for perfection; it sets us apart from the rest of the world, the Type-Bs.

Some days, after I’ve burned the meatloaf, spilled red wine on the white tablecloth, or dictated the wrong operative report on the right patient, I long for a giant bear hug of a dose of Type-B.

I wonder to myself how it would feel to say, “Yeah, that’s plenty good enough,” and truly be content with the result.

Fortunately, my patient husband has a secret stash of Type-B hidden away that pops up when I least expect it.

Like the time I miscalculated the time-zone conversion from West Coast to East Coast and we missed an important phone call. Or the morning I sat down for breakfast and was greeted by a lovely anniversary card on top of my cereal bowl, front and center.

Oops. The search for perfection is futile pursuit.

Does the pain of perfection show up in your practice? If you are at all like me, you feel it almost weekly.

It’s the little things that throw us off:

  • A “B plus” surgical outcome on a traumatic injury that could’ve easily been a “D minus,” yet, you can’t shake that longing for an “A.”
  • The upset patient who complains because you’re running 20 minutes behind, right after the one who gave you a glowing report for the way you explained a difficult diagnosis.
  • The family member who whines about not getting enough time with you, right after you schedule some quality “me time” that has been sorely missing in your life.

I want you to hear this, loud and clear: Perfection is the enemy of excellence.

Doctors are human. There. I said it.

We must humble ourselves and remember that we are, in fact, not perfect. We must acknowledge that–regardless of our specific beliefs–there is a higher power, a higher authority that is not you.
There is something you can turn to that is bigger than you.

And, whatever that something is for you, let it be. Breathe it in. Believe.

We may not be perfect, but we are enough.

CATEGORIES: Blog on June 23, 2014 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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12 thoughts on “How Perfection Can Lead to Physician Burnout

  1. Pamela Pappas

    Great post, Dr. Starla. You are a gracious plenty, and I bet most of your patients (except those who are feeling cranky that day) will confirm this! Blessings to you.

  2. Pingback: Med School Pep Talk | Sachified

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Dear Sachi,
      Thank you for quoting my work in your “Med School Pep Talk” for University of Santo Tomas Med School in the Philippines. You and the over 2,000 students in your med school are on the road to one of the best and most challenging professions. I love your Blog Sachified at and am honored to share the message at You and your fellow students are welcome additions to our online community, where special free weekly insider tips and inspiration are sent to those who sign up for our newsletter. Let me know how I can help. We’re all in the together.

  3. Sue

    But we are held to a standard of perfect. The MSG I work for considers the visit a failure if you do not get perfect scores. Medicare considers the visit a failure if you do not get perfect scores. Its an impossible standard.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Dear Sue,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. You are so right that perfection is a wacky standard to be judged on. In my world, the surgeon is penalized if they have not entered the computer data on the patient in pre-op by a certain time, even when we are actually standing there, going over questions asked by that patient. There’s ways to work around some of it. And sometimes what’s needed is a total change. The doctors I’ve worked with have found various channels to improve things in their world. Would love to offer you a free get-acquainted call, my friend. Just go to and look under “Services and Products” heading. It will take you to link on Coaching. There’s a super short request form to complete. Then, I’ll be in touch to find a good time for us to brainstorm. You deserve to be happy in your life. We all do. We’re all in this together. Blessings.

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