Health officials call doctor burnout a concern

Suicide leading cause of death in male residents

It’s a doctor’s job to take care of patients, but health officials say it’s just as important that doctors get the care they need.

There are more suicides among physicians than in the general population, and a million Americans lose their doctor to suicide each year.

Dr. John Arce is in his second year of Mayo Clinic Health System’s family residency program and can tell you the symptoms of a burnout, which include exhaustion and depersonalization.

“It just means you’re trying to draw from an empty energy bank,” Arce said.

But that knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening to him and his colleagues.

“Sometimes we as doctors aren’t the best patients,” he said. “We don’t see the symptoms in ourselves.”

Working 60-80 -hour weeks, Arce and other residents across the country are prone to burning out, and suicide is the primary cause of death among male residents nationally.

“It’s very real,” he said.

“If we’re not able to take care of ourselves, then it’s really hard to take care of others,” said John Merfeld, family residency program director.

When Merfeld was a resident, there weren’t the across-the-board work hour restrictions there are today.

“Weeks. We literally worked weeks at a time,” he said.

Now residents’ hours are capped at 80 hours a week, but Chief Medical Officer David Rushlow said burnout is now an even bigger deal, for residents and physicians alike, than it was in the past.

Mayo Clinic Health System has a physician burnout prevention committee, and Mayo has done research into understanding physician burnout. When looking into the underlying reasons for burnout, they determined clerical work is the No. 1 cause.

While electronic medical records have done plenty to improve the health industry, also they’ve added hours of work to physicians’ and residents’ days.

“(Residency is) a very, very busy time in the life of a physician,” he said. “When we think about an added work of clerical burden on top of that already busy time, it’s no doubt they’re struggling mightily with this.”

“It’s almost like an office job sometimes,” Arce said.

Arce has learned how to become more efficient at keeping records with methods such as using a dictation machine, and he and his fellow Mayo residents take a full wellness curriculum focusing on topics that include emotional intelligence and maintaining a work-life balance.

“It’s helped a lot,” he said.

Arce said he has better tools to help him monitor his stress, and just remembering why he’s putting in the long hours keeps him confident that all his work will be worth it.

“The reason I went into medicine is to help people,” he said.