Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Physician activism as an antidote to burnout

The growing number of physicians evidencing symptoms of burnout has many causes.  Yet one element stands out, according to research: a perceived loss of control over their time, working conditions, and other stress contributors.   ACP has launched a Physician Well-being and Professional Satisfaction Initiative that includes resources promoting individual well-being, advocating for system changes, improving the practice environment, and fostering local communities of well-being.  ACP’s Patients Before Paperwork is about challenging administrative tasks that contribute to burnout.

Yet over the past three days, I’ve observed another promising antidote to burnout:  individual and collective physician activism to change policies that affect their daily work and professional development.  Nearly 400 ACP members from 48 states and the District of Columbia came to Washington, DC to participate in our  annual Leadership Day on Capitol Hill.  Yesterday, they learned about how to be effective advocates with their elected lawmakers, the political and legislative environment in Congress, and the issues that ACP was asking them to bring to Congress. 

This morning, they heard from Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), chair of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, on the subcommittee’s Medicare Red Tape initiative, which gives clinicians the opportunity to inform lawmakers about administrative tasks that could be modified to make them less burdensome, if not eliminated altogether. Then, former CMS administrator CMS Andy Slavitt, recipient of ACP’s 2018 Joseph F. Boyle award for Distinguished Public Service, suggested to the attendees that health care proposals should be evaluated based on a simple test: does it make it easier or harder for patients to get the care they need? 

The attendees then headed to Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress and staff from their own states, presenting ACP’s ideas, as supported by their own personal experiences with patients, for improving patients’ care and physicians’ daily lives and professional development.

What does all of this have to do with physician burnout?  The doctors and medical students I observed this week were anything but a dispirited or despairing group, but happy and enthusiastic activists for their patients, and their profession.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that physician activism is a powerful antidote to burnout.  If burnout is about losing control, activism is about taking it back.   Physician-activists don’t accept a status quo that devalues the doctor-patient relationship, they advocate for policies to make things better.  As Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

There is nothing more empowering than that.