Research in the last five years has exposed a troubling, global epidemic in healthcare: high rates of burnout, depression, anxiety, and suicide among physicians.
In 2018, researchers from the Brigham analyzed data from 182 studies involving nearly 110,000 physicians worldwide. They found that 67% of physicians had experienced overall burnout, with providers in some specialties reporting up to 87%. Most prone to burnout are clinicians who have more frequent patient contacts, including emergency medicine and primary care.
For physicians, burnout involves feeling emotionally exhausted, personally ineffective, and cynical or depersonalized towards patients. In addition to severely affecting physicians’ work satisfaction and personal lives, burnout increases the risk of medical errors, threatening patients’ care and safety.
Leaders at the Brigham are taking a significant stand against burnout, starting at home. Jessica Dudley, MD, chief medical officer of the Brigham and Women’s Physicians Organization (BWPO), says the hospital has launched several programs to promote a culture of community and self-care, relieve the administrative burden of today’s healthcare systems, and increase faculty access to personal well-being and behavioral health resources.
“Burnout is not the fault of physicians—they are incredibly resilient,” says Dudley. “It’s driven by external factors, like being asked to do more in a broken and inefficient healthcare system. That’s why the BWPO is making a huge effort to make sure every physician here has the support they need for well-being and professional fulfillment.”
Increasing access to mental health services is a crucial aspect of the BWPO’s efforts. In 2018, the hospital opened a mental health clinic to offer faculty and trainees rapid access to psychiatry services.
“Over the past year, our program has provided consultation to 160 faculty and trainees with over 500 follow-up visits,” says Mary K. McCarthy, MD, who directs the clinic. “Physicians are resilient human beings who also sometimes get depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, especially if other life stressors are added on to the responsibilities of their work.”
In addition to the BWPO’s initiatives, Eve Rittenberg, MD, Samara Grossman, LICSW, and Annie Lewis O’Connor, PhD, NP-BC, MPH, provide trauma-informed care training to physicians, nurses, care managers, and community health workers across the Brigham and Partners HealthCare. They are also working with students and faculty at Harvard Medical School to incorporate trauma-informed care into the medical curriculum.
“We all have our own histories, and we sit with patients who experience some terrible suffering,” Rittenberg says. “It’s important for us as providers and staff to take care of ourselves and do what we can to improve our own resilience and decrease vicarious trauma. It’s a gradual process that is becoming more a part of how we think about training and practicing medicine.”