Can Music Mend Physician Burnout?

There’s a great song by Don McLean called “American Pie”. The chorus talks about “the day the music died”. I thought about that song in my hospital a couple years ago, when the music died there, too. I’ve noticed that our physician burnout and nurse frustration have increased in the years since the music died. Could it be coincidence?

McLean’s song was about a plane crash in 1959 that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. It was tragic.

What happened at our hospital was tragic, too.

We all know that certain songs can send us down memory lane, for better or worse. Music can also help with healing.

A recent article by Lisa Suennen in The Doctor Weighs In reviewed that music can help depression and even Alzheimer’s.

One of the doctors at my hospital, anesthesiologist Dr. Fred Schwartz, discovered that premature babies had improved oxygen saturation levels if they listened to their mother’s placenta sounds.

Now, Dr. Schwartz is super-intuitive. And a great patient advocate. He next brought his ideas about music to the Surgery Department, and the Music Listening Program was born.

The out-patient pre-op area was set up to have individual headphones for the patients and the option of five channels of music (this was before Pandora and Spotify).

— Patients loved it and reported reduced stress as they waited to have their surgery.

— The pre-op area was a calm place to be.

— It even led to a volunteer who played music on a harp twice a month.

The patients were relaxed. The nurses were calm. The surgeons felt more at ease.

Then that all changed.

The hospital hired some consultants to help improve the bottom line. These consultants flew in for a few weeks. They holed up in a conference room and crunched numbers. They never came to check out our pre-op area, or the music program.

Imagine our sadness when suddenly the Music Listening Program in the pre-op area was deemed “too expensive”.

Each headset and music system were replaced with a small TV monitor. Now patients could watch the morning news, or loud talk shows or sports as they waited for their surgery.

What was the response?

Patients became either anxious from the onslaught of the news or placid from trying to tune it all out. Not relaxed. Not in a mood of being receptive for the healing that needed to take place.

Like all of us when we have sensory overload and have something to fill in the space, patients zoned out. Their families zoned out when they were visiting them in the pre-op area.

The surgeons found it challenging to speak to the patients before surgery, as the TV monitor blared non-stop just above the patient’s bed.

Yes, the music died.

The calmness that came with the music died, too.

The sense of hope, of laughter, of healing? Yep. Gone, as well.

And what about the nurses, the doctors, the technicians who had seen this all go down?

That’s when the sounds of burnout, of frustration, of disappointment were heard.

That’s when we all looked around and felt that our special hospital, the one that had such a great reputation throughout the state, wasn’t so special anymore.

That’s when we saw that our hospital staff and administration no longer worked together as a caring orchestra, creating a beautiful symphony.

That’s when we lost some of our joy.

And a little piece of us died with the music.




CATEGORIES: Blog on January 20, 2015 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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4 thoughts on “Can Music Mend Physician Burnout?

  1. Evan Leibowitz

    I agree completely with this. Music is a fantastic ingredient to help prevent burnout. It does not matter what type of music; as long as you enjoy it. In my office, I always have a classic rock station playing softly in the background. Out of work, I am a drummer in a classic rock tribute band. We mostly play in my basement on Sunday afternoons. It brings us all great joy and is a fantastic outlet. Occasionally we are invited to play for charity events, which is quite satisfying. Cheers.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Evan, thanks for your input. Music is an amazing healer, isn’t it? My husband and I take electric guitar lessons every Sunday afternoon. Some days we’re better than others. 🙂 It does tap into a different part of our brain and it’s just plain fun. Love that you’re a drummer in a band! Rock on, my friend!

  2. John S. Jarstad, M.D.

    A few years ago we presented a study looking at the effects of 4 different genres of music and the effect each one had on operating room efficiency and outcomes. Country music (Alabama’s Greatest hits) improved efficiency most, African Beat music (The Four Brothers Makorokoto) improved case turnover best, Heavy Metal (Guns & Roses – Welcome to the Jungle) had to be discontinued due to patient complaints and classical music put everyone to sleep. I was surprized by the results but music has always been an important part of my life from playing the French horn in a symphony or a harp to relax to playing guitar in a classic rock band. Eye surgery is my day job but I live through music.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Fascinating info, John! I would never have picked Country music as the top for efficiency. I agree that music is often the medicine that heals. I’ve been at some concerts (Natalie Merchant, many years ago) where the beauty of the music brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing this important work. Many blessings, friend.


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