Choosing Your Battles in the War Against Doctor Burnout

There are certain things that aggravate some of us more than others. And what bothers us in everyday life may have a profound effect on doctor burnout.

For instance, some folks go crazy when it comes to driving. Having someone drive too slow in their lane on the interstate or cut them off as they are changing lanes can incite road rage in someone you may otherwise consider mild-mannered.

Others get upset when they are shopping at the grocery store and someone has 15 items in the “10 items or less” express lane.

For me, it makes me annoyed when people are not the least bit polite. Standing in line to get holiday ham recently, there was no eye contact or words of greeting for the whole 45 minutes during my encounter, despite my best efforts to be polite and engaging with the staff.

So, what does all this have to do with doctor burnout?


Just like road rage, express lane indignation, and rudeness intolerance, we each draw our invisible line in the sand when it comes to doctor burnout.

Some of my colleagues tell me that it strikes a nerve when a patient shows up an hour late for their appointment and then is surprised they are not seen immediately.

Others get frustrated when a patient doesn’t comply with a fairly straightforward medical request:

— taking a week’s worth of antibiotics

— drinking more water on a daily basis to help a particular medicine work more effectively

— going to get an X-ray that was scheduled for them

And still others feel push back when a patient challenges them.

Whether it’s a challenge about one’s training, recommendations or general presentation, we’ve all been there.

The other day, a patient said, “Aren’t you going to take my sutures out today?” I replied that no, they were not ready and that the sutures would be removed at his visit the following week. Rather than nodding, he replied, “Someone said my sutures would be removed today.”

Trying not to get on the defensive, I smiled and replied, “Well, we could take your sutures out today, but then everything could split apart. So we’re not going to do that. I don’t know who told you the sutures would be removed, but they were mistaken.”

I wanted to say, “Really? Are you challenging me on when is the correct time for your sutures to be removed, after I’ve done this exact same surgery for over twenty years?

Of course, I didn’t say that. But I can see how, on a different day, in a different set of circumstances, I could have drummed up my ammunition for doctor burnout and made that encounter a major event of the day. 

When colleagues and clients ask me how to fight against doctor burnout, there’s not always only ONE single answer.

One answer may be to learn how to develop your own private bubble to keep the irritants of tardy patients or non-compliant patients from impacting your core of beliefs.

Another answer may be to learn a few simple, quick techniques to head things off at the pass, before you get knee-deep in a case of doctor burnout. For instance, I teach my clients a simple breathing technique in our “4 Steps from Burnout to Balance” course that can lower blood pressure and improve your immune system.

Yet another answer may be to remember that sometimes it’s not about you, and remind yourself that the patient is probably just scared or tired or otherwise in a situation where he or she can’t comply with your request or expectation.

When it comes time to fight the war against doctor burnout, shouldn’t we have our true grievances lined up very clearly?

Otherwise, we don’t know if we’re fighting the patients, the system, or ourselves.

If we’re fighting our patients, then we need to learn how to say no, or take a much needed break, or use the magic phrase that can help us out of our misery.

If we’re fighting the system — whether it be the hospital system, the insurance system or the pharmaceutical system — then it’s helpful to be very specific about what our grievances are and what we expect to change. 

If we’re fighting ourselves in the war against doctor burnout, then no one is going to win.

We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, for a loss. Just like the person who loses their temper in road rage, we’ve got a lose-lose situation.

The answer is not in getting the driver of the other car to change behavior. Or the person with the loaded grocery cart to change the line they are in. Or the clerk in the holiday ham store to change their attitude.

The real answer is to alter our reaction to it.

To be teflon.

Let our reaction to the things that we can’t change roll like water off a duck’s back.

So we can have the energy to meet the challenges of the things we can change.


CATEGORIES: Blog on January 13, 2015 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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7 thoughts on “Choosing Your Battles in the War Against Doctor Burnout

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Jane, when we let the wackiness that we all encounter move through us instead of getting in reaction mode, it keeps us more balanced. Glad you like the Teflon reference. Sometimes I wish I had a lab coat made of it! 🙂

  1. KCatherine

    I have found rigorous exercise, including competing in it as well as yoga to be helpful. Competition in the physical arena puts things into perspective (“Nobody is going to die…”) and yoga to help me achieve a level of stillness and peace. Yes, I had to cut back on work in order to fit on these things but it was necessary for my long- term mental and physical health.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Catherine, I love the idea of vigorous exercise combined with the stillness of yoga. It’s so wise of you to see that working this into your schedule — even if a change in the schedule is needed — can bring your clarity and improved health on all levels. Kudos, my friend!

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